Katharine Burr Blodgett – Scientist and Inventor

Katharine Burr Blodgett, born Jan 10, 1898, was an American scientist and inventor. She was the first woman awarded a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Cambridge, and while working for General Electric invented low-reflective “invisible” glass.

Katharine Blodgett at General Electric Research Laboratories c. 1938, Smithsonian Institution Archives (source)

Katharine Blodgett at General Electric Research Laboratories c. 1938, Smithsonian Institution Archives (source)

Katherine’s father, George Blodgett, a patent attorney for General Electric, was shot and killed just before her birth. Financially secure after his death, her mother, Katharine Burr Blodgett, moved with Katharine and her brother George Jr. to New York City and then to France where they spent eleven years. On their return in 1912, Katharine attended the Rayson School, known for providing the same quality education boys were given during the time. She excelled in mathematics and won a scholarship to Bryn Mawr College where she studied math and physics.

Deciding that she wanted to do scientific research and on the advice of a former colleague of her father’s, Katharine enrolled in the University of Chicago for graduate work. It was 1918, WWI was still ongoing, so she studied and published a paper on gas mask materials. It only took her a year to finish her Master’s Degree, and she then became the first woman hired at the GE research lab. In 1924, she was awarded a position at the Cavendish Laboratory, the physics department at Cambridge, and finished her Ph.D. in 1926.

Working with Irving Langmuir, Katherine developed a method to spread monomolecular coatings of substances on to glass or metal. The apparatus used is known as the Langmuir-Blodgett trough. Blodgett went on to develope practical uses for the technique, specifically non-reflective glass, which was quickly put to use in the film industry and in submarines and airplanes in WWII. She had a total of eight US patents issued in her name during her time at GE.

Katharine had two long-term relationships with women at different times during her life: Gertrude Brown and Elsie Errington. She had many outside activities including astronomy, gardening, volunteer work with civic and charitable organizations, collecting antiques, and acting with a local theater group. After living a very full like, Katharine died on October 12, 1979 at her home in Schenectady, NY.

Find out what else happened on January 10 in Women’s History.

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