This week in my graduate seminar on Technology & Gender, we will be discussing Ruth Oldenziel’s Making Technology Masculine: Men, Women and Modern Machines in America, 1870-1945. As a complement to that discussion, we will be analyzing a remarkable set of primary source documents on the history of women in technology. The documents are a series of letters exchanged between the presidents of various engineering schools in the United States in the fall of 1917, and are part of one of my favorite stories about the importance of serendipitous discovery in historical research.

In the spring of 2005 I was a relatively new faculty member in the History & Sociology of Science department at the University of Pennsylvania, and had just finished teaching an undergraduate survey course on the history of technology. One of the topics we covered was the history of women in engineering.

A few weeks after the end of the semester one of my most excellent students, a Penn undergraduate named Joan Lee, came to my office with a collection of documents she had found in a dumpster. Joan was teaching in a summer program aimed a teaching girls and boys about science and technology, and went looking for some waste paper out of which to construct paper airplanes. What she found was a set of letters to and from John Frazer, the then dean of the Towne Scientific School at the University of Pennsylvania. In early November 1917, Frazer had written to the deans or presidents of all of major engineering or technical colleges in the United States, asking them about their policies on admitting women to their programs. The responses came from Stanford, Cornell, Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, Wellesley, Berkeley, University of Michigan, University of Illinois, Washington University of St. Louis, Case Western, Brooklyn Polytechnic, Tulane, University of Virginia, Georgia Tech, and the Stevens Institute of Technology. The results are fascinating and, in some cases, surprising.

At the time, Penn was touting its (relatively) long and admirable history of admitting women. Sadly, the tragic conclusion of this chain of letters shows that this was not true of its engineering departments. But in any case, what a remarkable opportunity for a history of science student to experience, as an undergraduate, the challenges and pleasures of doing historical research.

You can find the document collection here. Be sure to read the final two letters, which bring the episode through to its sad conclusion in 1921. Then go read Oldenziel’s book, because although these letters provide excellent insight into what the Deans of engineering schools thought about the role of women in engineering at the turn of the 20th century, they are a terrible reflection of the actual presence of women in engineering in this period.