February 07



One of the best parts of researching and writing my new picture book, The Brilliant Calculator: How Mathematician Edith Clarke Helped Electrify America (illustrated by Susan Reagan and coming in March from Calkins Creek/Astra Books for Young Readers), is that I knew virtually nothing about Edith Clarke. Even though she was the first female electrical engineer in America, and has been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, there is very little in-depth material written about her. And though I often worked with electrical engineers before I became a writer, her name was never mentioned. So when I learned some basic facts about Edith Clarke through a publication of the National Women’s History Museum in Washington, D.C., I was immediately inspired to learn more.

My research moved in two directions: understanding the complex achievements and contributions of the inventor, and discovering the brilliant, strong-willed woman who followed her passion to break into a profession dominated by men.

As a child in the 1890’s, Edith Clarke loved puzzles of any kind, math in all of its forms, and beating every adult at complicated card games. The daughter of a well-to-do farmer in Maryland, she was expected to marry and raise a family—not at all what she wanted. Instead, she managed to go to college, to work as a “human computor” for the company building the first coast-to-coast telephone line, and to be the first woman to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a degree in electrical engineering.

But no one would hire her as an engineer because she was a woman.

Though relegated to being a “human computor,” Edith believed in her own abilities. She determined to pursue her fascination with electricity. Alone and in her spare time, she tackled a major issue hindering the U.S. from becoming electrified: how to send electricity over long distances from where it was generated to where it would be used. She invented—from paper and cardboard—a graphical calculator that solved problems ten times faster than a slide rule. It  proved instrumental in developing long-distance transmission lines—and got her hired as an electrical engineer.

To understand the complexity of her achievements, I read everything I could find about her. There are no biographies; an engineering journal article and a chapter in an out-of-print book about women engineers based on an interview with her provided background. Clarke published many papers in her career, including—before she received a patent for it—instructions and a pattern for her Calculator so that all engineers could use it. She wrote a two-volume book on electrical engineering that became the main textbook and reference guide for working engineers for decades (way over my head!). These all provided a sense of her intelligence and expertise, but she left no archive of personal papers that would provide a more personal sense of who she was.

So I had to build a picture of her from various other sources. Her college, Vassar, was very helpful in providing news clippings, her transcript, and links to alumnae magazines in which she was mentioned. Newspaper articles about her were invaluable for descriptions of her looks and voice, her sense of humor, her hobbies and interests, and her view of her place as a woman in her profession. Census documents provided family context, and her passport application and accompanying documents revealed her desire for adventure and her yearning to travel.

I visited the house where she was born (now a golf club), the house where she lived when she died (now a restaurant), and, on a warm November afternoon, located her grave. Through genealogical research I found a relative who had successfully nominated her for the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame, and who kindly sent me the nominating materials. I also located her grand-nephew, and interviewed him to hear stories of what she was like in the last years of her life. He graciously provided a photograph that is included in the book.

Together, these sources paint a picture of a person who followed her own curiosity, worked to overcome the challenges before her, and—most importantly—truly believed in herself. I hope girls everywhere, and boys, too, will see possibilities for themselves in Edith’s story.

I need to say a word about the amazing work of the illustrator, Susan Reagan. All picture book writers know that their words tell only half the narrative—the illustrations bring the subject and events fully to life. In this book, Susan has gone far beyond mere illustrations, as beautiful and colorful as they are: she has included puzzles, math problems, physics, and complex engineering equations on almost every page! Even the cover cleverly blooms with mathematical equations. Through Susan’s incredible artwork, readers will see and feel the way that advanced math animated Edith Clarke’s mind and imagination.

And last, I need to thank Carolyn Yoder, the book’s editor, for her dedication to the story, to its details, and to its potential to create a spark in the minds of young readers. As Edith said: “For those girl mathematicians who enjoy problems and delight in solving mathematical puzzles, electrical engineering is an ideal profession.” We hope young math lovers find delight in this book, too.

The Brilliant Calculator: How Mathematician Edith Clarke Helped Electrify America is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection.

Jan Lower photoJan Lower is an author of fiction and non-fiction for middle grade readers. She grew up outside Philadelphia in a house filled with books. Before becoming a children’s writer, Jan worked as a lawyer in Washington, D.C., for several years. She received an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Jan lives with her family in Bethesda, Maryland.

SUSAN REAGANSusan Reagan earned her degree from the Columbus College of Art and Design. With previous experience in greeting cards, surface designs, and picture books, Susan’s titles include YOU AND ME and LIGHTS OUT! Illustrator site: susanreaganart.com