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Happy Engineer's Week!
National Engineer's Week was started in 1951 by the National Society of Professional Engineers in conjunction with President George Washington's birthday (February 22). President Washington is considered as the nation's first engineer, notably for his survey work.
Prior to the start of National Engineers Week, the University of Missouri College of Engineering began celebrating the world's first Engineers' Week in 1903, 48 years before the National Society of Professional Engineers, with St. Patrick as the patron Saint of engineers.
Our celebration for the pioneers of engineering on whose shoulders we stand today wouldn’t be complete without featuring the First Lady of Structural Engineering. She was born in 1870 and came from a family of wealthy farmers. This brilliant engineer gained her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Iowa State University.
While this woman was not the first female to obtain a bachelor’s degree in engineering, she was the first to gain a master’s degree in the same field. In addition, pioneering engineer proceeded to work in civil engineering as a career woman, which was novel for the time. She was also the first female to work full time as a civil-structural engineering professor. This is especially notable because it was less than 40 years earlier, in 1855, that the first co-educational institution was opened in Iowa— it was also the first true co-ed college in the nation.
Who was she?
Elmina Wilson. During her studies, Wilson took courses at renowned universities, MIT and Cornell, while also working summers with engineering and architecture firms. After graduating, she became a professor and continued to work summers at engineering firms, one of which was Purdy & Henderson, a firm that dominated the skyscraper industry.
One notable building Wilson worked on was the Flatiron Building in Manhattan. Completed in 1902, the Flatiron Building, and therefore Elmina Wilson, left a mark on New York City, defining the area in which the wedge-shaped building is located as the Flatiron District.
In addition to her legacy in the world of engineering, Wilson left a mark on women’s rights. Though she died on June 2, 1918 and did not live to see the passing of the 19th amendment allowing women the vote, Wilson’s efforts played a major role in the movement. As president of the Woman Suffrage Club in Manhattan, she “mingled with the national leaders and supporters of the women’s suffrage movement.”
Elmina’s sister, Alda H. Wilson, also received a degree in civil engineering, just two years after her older sister. Alda’s career, however, moved more toward architecture. The sisters reportedly took a sabbatical in 1904 to study architectural and engineering works in Europe.
The Flat Iron Building in New York City was an early project on which Elmina Wilson worked.