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Female engineer not quite lost to history

Lack of evidence leaves tantalizing questions about this pioneering Clark County electrical engineer.

“All around the life of Bertha Lamme there is success, but who knows the role of this woman behind these two successful men as … an individual in her own right?”

— Historian Guenter Holzer

In the 1990 book “Women of Science: Righting the Record,” Clark County’s Bertha Lamme is the first person listed under the heading “Some More Obscure Early Women Engineers.”

The book clearly intends no insult to Lamme. The heading instead expresses the editors’ disappointment about the lack of information that obscures the lives of so many early female scientists.

And because she was part of one of the most creative and innovative electrical engineering teams in history, the few scraps available seem all the more tantalizing.

Born Dec. 16, 1869, on the family farm in Bethel Twp., the graduate of Olive Branch High School earned a degree in mechanical engineering with a specialty in electrical engineering from Ohio State University in 1893.

Newspapers of the time picked up her story, sometimes running her photo, when Westinghouse hired her.

In his autobiography, Bertha’s groundbreaking brother, Benjamin Lamme, says his sister “had taken an engineering degree in the Ohio State University more for the pleasure of it than anything else.

“Sometime later,” he adds, “Mr. (Albert) Schmid (shop foreman) gave her a serious invitation to enter the employ of the company, and so she took up the work of calculation of machines.”

Ed Reis, Westinghouse Historian at the Sen. John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, said Bertha had come to Schmid’s attention through her thesis, “An Analysis of Tests of a Westinghouse Railway Generator.”

Ohio State’s yearbook, Makio, offers some hints about her character, including this quote after her name: “The most peerless piece of earth, I think, that e’er the sun shone bright on.”

Beneath that sunny disposition is what one class note described as “a compendium of universal knowledge.”

The June 13, 1893, Lantern report of the graduation ceremonies indicates her classmates’ fondness for her.

“When among those who stepped forth to receive the degree of Mechanical Engineer in electrical engineering was a ‘sweet girl graduate,’ Miss Bertha Lamme, a spontaneous ripple of applause broke over the crowd,” the student newspaper reports.

Ironically, Bertha Lamme’s surviving remarks about getting into the field are found in a book about her brother: “I cannot recall that he ever directly urged me to study along such lines, but he must … have led my mind in that direction.

“I had no aptitude for mechanics or doing things such as he had as a child,” she added, “but I did have a liking for mathematics.”

“I remember at one time he told me very earnestly that when I had finished we would take up together the business of designing mechanical toys — that it was a ‘big field.’ But before I was through school, he had undoubtedly found his ‘big field’ in the electrical business.”

Although the electrical business was the cutting-edge technology of the time, the Heinz Museum’s Reis said “actually, the toy industry’s a pretty high tech industry.”

It contrasts with one of the low tech pleasures of Bertha’s childhood.

At 14, what she enjoyed most doing above all others, said Reis, was riding the family mule.

Reis said that although Schmid’s decision to hire graduate Bertha Lamme may have engendered George Westinghouse’s surprise, he likely wouldn’t have questioned it.

“He gave people a lot of leeway, and he thought a lot of Albert Schmid.

“Some speculated that she was hired because of the influence from her brother,” he added. “I don’t believe that happened. Evidently she was quite a good engineer and a very, very bright woman.”

During her 12 years at Westinghouse, she worked with the company’s best and brightest, including her pioneering brother, Benjamin, and eventual husband, Russell Feicht.

Benjamin put himself on the map by helping to design the electrical system for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. He later worked on the hydroelectric dam on the Niagara River, helping to solve the practical problems of using electric power to light the city of Buffalo.

A highlight for Russell Feicht was designing the then huge 2,000-horsepower motor Westinghouse displayed at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Both men both served as the company’s chief engineer.

But little record survives about Bertha’s own work, which “Women in Science” says is normal, if not good.

“Because these women did receive so little recognition, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact nature of their contributions.”

It is not for lack of research.

In 1972, when Ohio State’s College of Engineering was welcoming its rising tide of female students and recruiting more, it contacted Guenter S. Holzer, a historian at Minnesota’s Mankato State University, encouraging him to produce something for them from all the research he’d done on Bertha Lamme.

In October of that year, Holzer wrote back: “Still, I have not found a story. There are apparently no records which reveal moments of crisis or decision, of controversy, of agony, of trials and tribulations. We don’t know what she thought or how she thought.”

Writes a frustrated Holzer: “All around the life of Bertha Lamme there is success, but who knows the role of this woman behind these two successful men as … an individual in her own right?”

Bertha Lamme’s career ended with her marriage to Feicht on Dec. 14, 1905. She soon gave birth to a daughter who followed in their scientific tradition.

“She had my mother when she was almost 40,” said Dorothy Boyer of Pittsburgh, her granddaughter. “She was an only child.”

That child had been doted on and spoiled by her uncle Benjamin, and two unmarried aunts, Lenna and Florence Lamme (for whom she was named). The sisters had moved to Pittsburgh to live with their brother and near their sister.

Their mother, Sarah, apparently also moved to Pittsburgh, dying there in 1908.

Florence Feicht “wanted to study astronomy, but her father told her there was no future in it, so she studied physics,” Boyer said.

So she went on to work as a physicist for the U.S. Bureau of Mines Health Division, and some of her professional publications are available online.

To Boyer, her mother and grandmother prove “there have always been strong, accomplished women who were willing to go out in the world and succeed.”

“I always felt fortunate to have my mother,” added Boyer, whose mother gave up her career to raise the children. “By the time she had kids, she really wanted kids. She wanted to be the girl scout leader, she did a lot for the church, she was very interested in conservation.”

Fortunately, she was a saver, too.

And that meant when Winnie Carr, of the American Association of University Women in Pittsburgh, saw a picture of Bertha Lamme, learned of her engineering past and took the initiative to find Boyer, there were enough artifacts to make the permanent display at the Heinz Museum.

An all-visual display includes a photograph, college diploma, a T-square, a slide rule, eyeglasses and a silk fan — no more than glimpses into the life that ended Nov. 20, 1943.

But, along with the Bertha Lamme Feicht Award that Ohio State University’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering program gives to alumni, they are reminders that silence is not necessarily evidence of a lack of importance but rather a lack of evidence itself.