“Where Professionals Connect”
By Mark Martel
Admitted where Amelia Earhart had been rejected, Maude Elsa Gardner became the first woman to gain acceptance into elite aeronautical engineering organizations due to her hard work and achievements. She translated, summarized and helped distribute an ocean of technical information about aviation, international advances and notable practitioners, but ironically was largely forgotten herself. Denied a more active role in aeronautics she instead became a master of its knowledge.
The initial idea to profile Maude Elsa Gardner as a Dayton innovator came from one solitary, cryptic fact: Gardner became the first woman accepted as a full member of the Engineers Club of Dayton, in 1936. Why had a decidedly male-only club relented and granted her membership? Was it simply due to declining membership in the depths of the Great Depression? Or had she succeeded on her own merits? Many lines of research (see sidebar) have uncovered a lifetime of significant accomplishments in the face of hardship and challenge.
Elsa Gardner, as she preferred to be called, would become a self-rated expert in aeronautical research and military intelligence, besides working in metallurgy and research and development. Translating and summarizing technical reports from German, Italian, French and English, in addition to her working knowledge of Latin and Greek, she alerted fellow aeronautical engineers to the latest overseas progress when European fascism was on the rise, during WWII, and in the subsequent Cold War. And though an outsider by gender, she worked to help other engineers connect and network professionally.
But to succeed, Gardner would have to accommodate physical “lameness,” pursue her studies across two decades, master five languages besides English, and persevere against a society that was often not ready to accept a female engineer. One early employer had let her go after he explained, “What would the machinists in the shops who read our magazine think if they knew we had a woman on our staff?”
Maude Elsa Gardner was born January 9, 1894 in Brooklyn, New York.
According to the 1900 U.S. Census, the Gardner family lived at 309 Quincy Street in Brooklyn, New York. Parents Herbert, age 28, and Maude, age 27, had been married 7 years. Younger brother Henry R., was a year old. Herbert’s father hailed from Ireland, and Elsa’s maternal grandparents were Canadian.
The Gardners rented their home and could afford a live-in 17-year-old servant, Kate Gallagher, from England. But all was not well for six-year-old Elsa.
“I limp from shortening of right leg due to hip joint disease at age of six, and lack of development of the leg while I was growing. This lameness has never interfered with my engineering work in the factory, engine lab, or wind tunnel. I was cured 30 or more years ago, and have never been troubled since.”
—Maude Elsa Gardner in 1945
This reply to a job application probably understates the reality. Before antibiotics, acute osteomyelitis in children could require multiple hip operations and long periods confined to bed. Such extreme physical privations may have helped stimulate Gardner’s intellectual interest in math and languages.
1910: At 16 years old, Elsa and her family now lived at 1917 86th Street in Brooklyn. Two more children had been born since the last census. Her father, a draperies merchant, could afford college tuition even for his daughters. From Elsa’s statement above, she finally overcame hip disease sometime before going off to university in 1912.
By 1920, three children were living at home. Elsa, now age 25 and single, was listed as a M. Engineer (assuming Mechanical Engineer) in a Machine (?) Company. Sister, Katheryn was 19 and a “Scholar” in college. Brother Allison, age 13, was a “Pupil” in High School. Henry had shipped off to France.
Gardner’s civilian records from the National Archives continue the story.
“During periods of employment attended college or was living at home. During times of depression, it was very hard for a woman engineer to get an engineering position, and I had to be content with what I could get.”
In1916 Gardner earned a B.A. from St. Lawrence College in upstate New York, specialized in mathematics. After college she returned to live at home in Brooklyn, working as a bookkeeper and statistician until World War One intervened.
At the British Ministry of Munitions of War in U.S. (in New York City) she found work as a Gauge Examiner. “Was taught British methods of measuring screw-thread and flat gages used in manufacture of munitions for British and French airplanes…I used new types of machines introduced by the British, such as the lead tester, as well as micrometers and vernier calipers.”
The manpower shortage opened up job opportunities for women and minorities temporarily. Some found the factory work liberating and lucrative, while others found it toxic, injurious and even deadly. In Britain, Canada and the U.S. women gained the vote shortly after WWI, partly due to their war involvement.
Working with explosives could be deadly on a massive scale. The July, 1916 “Black Tom Blast” in New York harbor was the largest explosion ever in the U.S. and was felt 100 miles away. 2,000 tons of munitions blew up while awaiting shipment for World War I. Five months later 37 people were killed in a British munitions factory. And when two ships collided in December 1917, Halifax, Nova Scotia became the site of the largest man-made explosion prior to the atom bombing of Hiroshima.
“Transferred at request of Navy [to Bliss Company Torpedo Works] to bring production up to standard. I was responsible for all the gages used in the production of torpedoes, some 84 different sized thread gages… When production of torpedoes ceased, I was transferred to the drafting department where I laid out a new course for the torpedo testing range at Sag Harbor when range was increased. Also did some drafting.”
Gardner continued her quest for an engineering degree with night school at New York University and Pratt Institute, a summer in Ann Arbor and finally with a year’s scholarship to M.I.T., ending her formal education finally in 1933, 21 years after first entering college.
After WWI, Gardner worked a stretch at Pratt & Whitney in Connecticut before growing homesick. Other jobs followed with printers and typesetters. Then she landed a position with the Wright Aeronautical Corp. in Paterson, New Jersey. As Assistant to Test Engineers, she “computed results of tests and drawing up of instructions for the assembly and disassembly of the Wright Whirlwind engine.” This was the first major radial engine, an outgrowth of work from Dayton’s McCook Field and a corporate descendant of the original Wright brothers company. (In those days a computer was a person doing math by hand, not an electronic machine.)
Her next position almost doubled her income and prefigured her government career. At the American Society of the Mechanical Engineers in Manhattan she “started card index system and had charge of all the aeronautical, mechanical and automotive engineering subjects, writing abstracts and reviewing all technical literature on these subjects in French and English which came into the Engineering Societies Libraries. I was entirely responsible for this work, as well as for the subject, and author classifications.”
Her stated reason for leaving: “sister died suddenly.” The Great Depression had started a few months prior. “I was supposed to start an aeronautical engineering library for [Bendix Research Corp.] and Eclipse Aviation Corp., but before I got very far with it, the appropriation gave out due to the depression and Mr. Bendix’ need for cutting out everything he could.”
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