Women on the key (for Ada Lovelace Day)

Posted on March 24, 2009 under history of technology

Today is Ada Lovelace Day,  “an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology.”  Thousands of folks all over the webs are celebrating women technologists.  Ada Lovelace, of course, was the world’s first programmer, working with Babbage and his analytical engine.  (Here’s Kate Beaton’s version of the story.)  

To observe Ada Lovelace Day, I’m going to talk a bit about women in telegraphy.   Women were involved in the 19th century’s most important communication technology at almost every level, but were most widespread as operators.  Thomas Jepsen, who wrote the best (okay, only, so far) book on women in telegraphy, My Sisters Telegraphic:  Women in the Telegraph Office 1846-1950, which I highly recommend, also maintains a great resource page for telegraph history.  Jepsen has lots of links to autobiographies and oral histories of women telegraphers, particularly out West (their stories are maybe not exactly as shown in The Hazards of Helen.)

Clara M. Brinkerhoff of New York was a telegraph inventor.  This former music teacher teamed up with telegraph operator George Cummings in the 1880s to improve the design of periphery contact points for telegraph keys; they were jointly awarded a patent for it in 1882, and their design won a number of awards.  They also formed a business together, Cumming and Brinkerhoff, located at 219 E. 18th St in New York, which sold their “Cumming Periphery Contact Disk Electrodes” and other telegraph equipment, and published catalogues of telegraphic and electrical equipment suppliers.  A letter is also still extant in the Edison Papers in which Cumming and Brinkerhoff thank Edison for his help in getting their products exhibited in Paris and send word of their various awards, including one from the Franklin Institute, to his attention.  (Clara appears to share the name of a famous soprano and composer of the time.)  As you can see, information about this woman telegraph inventor is rather scarce.  If you know anything more about her, please share it.