Bertha Lamme was nation’s first female mechanical engineering graduate
Today at Ohio State, female engineering students are a common sight. But in the 1890s, Bertha Lamme had few peers. Only one to be exact and that fellow pioneer was 2,000 miles away.
Lamme graduated from Ohio State in 1893 with a degree in mechanical engineering from the Department of Electrical Engineering, becoming the second woman in the United States to graduate with an engineering degree, according to the 1990 book Women of Science: Righting the Record.
After graduation, the Springfield native took her talents to Pittsburgh where she worked at Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company as a motor designer. During 12 years at the company, Lamme’s contributions of intricate calculations were used on machinery design and performance.
A 1907 edition of the Pittsburgh Dispatch reported, “Lamme’s work in designing dynamos and motors established her reputation -- even in that hothouse of gifted electricians and inventors.”
At Westinghouse, Lamme worked alongside two well-known contributors to mechanical engineering, her brother and her future husband.
Six years her senior and a fellow Buckeye engineer, Benjamin Lamme (1888, mechanical engineering) achieved international acclaim as a pioneering inventor and served as chief engineer for Westinghouse for 21 years. Among his 162 patents were new inventions on railway motors, induction motors, converters and the developments pertaining to the first Niagara Falls power system. In his will, Benjamin Lamme provided that a gold medal be presented annually to a technical graduate of his alma mater for "meritorious achievement in engineering."
“I cannot recall that he ever directly urged me to study along such lines, but he must… have led my mind in that direction,” Bertha wrote in her brother’s biography. “I had no aptitude for mechanics or doing things such as he did as a child, but I did have a liking for mathematics.”
While a student at Ohio State, Bertha and her brother discussed the idea of building their company designing mechanical toys. However, both siblings ended up finding their calling in the electrical business.
She became familiar with Westinghouse while working on her thesis, “An Analysis of Tests of a Westinghouse Railway Generator.” Although Benjamin was already working at the company when Bertha graduated, she was recruited by shop foreman Albert Schmid.
Bertha also caught the eye of Russel Feicht, another Buckeye engineer at Westinghouse who later became her husband. Feicht also became chief engineer for the company and designed the 2,000-horsepower motor displayed at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, reported the Springfield News-Sun.
Retiring upon her marriage to Feicht, Bertha continued to inspire others to achieve success. Her only daughter, Florence, became a physicist for the U.S. Bureau of Mines Health Division and was published in several professional publications. Bertha Lamme Feicht died in November 1943 in Pittsburgh. She was 74.
This month, we remember Lamme as a trailblazer in American history, honoring her legacy and impact in the mechanical engineering profession.