A. Lalitha, the first Indian woman engineer: Love of Electrical Engineering was in her blood
By reading true life stories like that of A. Lalitha, many girls will be inspired to study engineering and more importantly once entering the work force find a way to stay and contribute to technical fields…
In 1940, Lalitha Rao made history as the first woman engineer of India, and the first woman to graduate from one of the oldest Indian technical institution, my alma mater, College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG), University of Madras.
Lalitha was born on August 27, 1919 in Chennai (then Madras). She had a middle class upbringing in a Telugu speaking family (Chennai is predominantly a Tamil speaking city). She had four older and two younger siblings. Lalitha was married in 1934, when she was fifteen. Her studies continued even after marriage, but came to a stop after receiving the Secondary
School Leaving Certificate (SSLC or Class X). Her daughter Syamala was born in 1937 and was only four months old when Lalitha’s husband passed away. As a young widow with a baby, Lalitha wanted to go back to college and get a professional degree that would allow her to be self-sufficient.
Lalitha joined Queen Mary’s College in Chennai and completed her intermediate exam with first class. Lalitha thought about medicine as a career, but the rigors of being a doctor, while taking care of a young child didn’t appeal to her. The other option was to become an engineer, and follow in the footsteps of her father and brothers, but even though Lalitha was a brilliant student and getting into CEG today would have been a breeze, this seemed impossible in an age where technical education was considered a male prerogative. Luckily her father, a professor of electrical engineering at CEG, took up her daughter’s cause and spoke to the then principal of the college, Dr. K.C. Chacko and also got the approval from Director for Public Instruction.
Lalitha entered CEG in 1940 as a student of the four year electrical engineering program. Two more women Leelamma George and P.K. Thressia joined CEG to study civil engineering in 1940. All of them graduated in 1943, the first batch of women to do so from CEG. Lalitha’s Honors degree in Electrical Engineering was awarded in February of 1944.
Note: They had to strike out ‘He’ and write in ‘She’
After completing her qualifying examinations for Bachelor of Engineering degree in Electrical Engineering in 1943, Lalitha completed her one year apprenticeship in Jamalpur Railway Workshop, which was a major repair and overhaul facility.
In 1944 Lalitha joined the Central Standards Organization of India, Simla, as an engineering assistant. She stayed in the job until December 1946. She also took the Graduateship Exam of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, London, UK.
In 1946 Lalitha left her job in order to help him with his research. She couldn’t continue this beyond 1948 due to financial reasons, and joined the Associated Electrical Industries (AEI) . The post was to be in Calcutta, and Lalitha’s second brother lived there, which was fortunate, since living by herself would have been problematic as a widow in those days. In AEI, Lalitha worked in the engineering department, and sales division, Calcutta branch.
She had a very satisfying job there as a design engineer designing transmission lines. Her work also spanned solving problems of protective gear, substation layouts, and execution of contracts. A notable project was the Bhakra Nangal dam. Lalitha moved on to contract engineering, serving as an intermediary between the equipment manufacturers in England and the local installation and servicing engineers. Being a widow with a child, Lalitha’s work was confined to providing the expertise and assistance to those who were above her in seniority and she did this with great efficiency and satisfaction.
In 1953, the Council of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE), London, elected her to be an associate member and in 1966 she became a full member.
One of the highlights of Lalitha’s career was being invited to the First International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists (WES) in New York which took place in June 1964.
Attendees First International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists (WES). Lalitha on the far left. Image courtesy of Society of Women Engineers National Records, Walter P. Reuther Library and Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University
On her way back to India, Lalitha spent three weeks touring UK, visiting AEI factories including Trafford Park (Manchester) and Rugby works.
Lalitha became a full member of the Women’s Engineering Society of London in 1965, and acted as their representative in India for the Second International Conference of Women Engineers & Scientists, held in Cambridge, England in July 1967.
Lalitha’s accomplishments at the time she achieved them are awe inspiring. They would not have been possible without the extensive support structure she had.
She retired from working in 1977. In 1979, when she was only 60 years old, she was struck with a brain aneurism and passed away after a couple of weeks on October 12.
Lalitha once said, “Electrical Engineering runs in my blood. My father, four brothers, nephew and son-in-law are all electrical engineers”. Today, many girls get a STEM education – both in India, and elsewhere. For any number of reasons many of them decide to drop out of their fields. It takes grit and interest in the field to stay the course. Lalitha’s life is a beacon for all the women who came after her in the 50’s but also today.