Engineer of the Week No. 87: Nora Stanton Blatch (Mrs Barney) PhD, PE, FSEI, MCOPRI, FASCE (30 September 1883 - 18 January 1971)
On her 136th birthday we remember civil engineer Nora Stanton Blatch, who was the USA’s first female engineering graduate.
Although Nora Stanton Blatch was born in England, her family moved the USA when she left school. She was accepted into Cornell’s Sibley School of Engineering as part of the first wave of female students, and became the USA’s first female engineering graduate in 1905, when she graduated from Cornell University with a cum laude degree in civil engineering. This acheivement is slightly less surprising when you realise that both her mother and grandmother were leading campaigners for the women’s vote. Her final year thesis was on “An Experimental Study of the Flow of Sand and Water in Pipes under Pressure”. One of her professors, Ernest William Schoder, wrote in a letter of recommendation for Barney that “She can use her hands and head, separately and together, better than many male seniors.”
Nora’s first job was for the New York City Board of Water Supply. In 1908, she married the wireless valve inventor, Lee de Forest. They spent their honeymoon in Europe promoting his products including a live broadcast by her mother, from the Eiffel Tower, on women’s rights. Back in New Jersey, she was refused a job in his capacitor factory, despite having an engineering degree which her husband did not have. In 1909 she not only had her daughter but she also began working as an assistant engineer and chief drafter for the Radley Steel Construction Company, and left her husband. The main reason why the marriage failed within a year was that De Forest could not bear her working and, in 1911, told the New York Times that they were divorcing because Nora was “all mentality and ambition, and persisted in following her career as a hydraulic engineer and an agitator.”
In 1912, she was employed by the New York Public Service Commision as an assistant engineer. From 1914 she worked for the Public Works Administration in Connecticut and Rhode Island as an architect, engineering inspector and a structural-steel designer, eventually becoming a real estate developer, with her architect daughter.
Nora died in 1971. In 2015, nearly a century after she was refused membership of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) she was posthumously elected to ASCE Fellow status. In 2017, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) honored her work on their water supply facilities by naming their 30-million-dollar tunnel-boring machine “NORA”, in use during repairs to the New York City’s Delaware Aqueduct. The project is considered the largest repair in the history of New York City’s water supply. Speaking about the project, Barney’s granddaughter Coline Jenkins said “Nora will be pushing forward and breaking ground, as she did in life.”