Remembering Schenectady Scientist Katharine Burr Blodgett
Had she lived longer than any human ever has, Katharine Burr Blodgett would have turned 125 earlier this year. While she didn’t break any world records for longevity, the Schenectady native did live long enough to make her mark as one of the world’s leading scientists in an era when women simply didn’t have a seat in scientific circles. And where did she make her rise to the upper echelon of 20th century physicists and mathematicians? Well, General Electric, of course.
Born on January 10, 1898 to a patent lawyer for GE, Burr Blodgett moved with her family to New York City after her father was killed shortly after her birth. They relocated to France in 1901 and then returned to the states, where Burr Blodgett completed high school at 15 and received a degree from Pennsylvania’s Bryn Mawr College in 1917. During vacations in Upstate New York, she was introduced to research chemist Irving Langmuir by some of her father’s former colleagues. Langmuir recognized something in Burr Blodgett and encouraged her to pursue science; she went on to become the first woman ever to be awarded a doctorate in physics from Cambridge University.
After completing her schooling, Burr Blodgett returned to Schenectady where she was hired as the first female scientist at GE. She worked on perfecting tungsten filaments in electric lamps per Langmuir’s guidance before concentrating her studies on surface chemistry. In that field, she was able to measure an unusual, oil substance Langmuir had developed in the lab to millionth of an inch (earlier measurements were only accurate to a few thousandths of an inch), and her work in measuring transparent objects led her to invent nonreflecting glass, an effective device for scientists as well as consumers (it’s used in picture frames and camera lenses).
Burr Blodgett’s other professional achievements include the development of a better smoke screen for use in the war effort and a device to measure humidity rapidly as weather balloons ascended into the upper atmosphere. Outside of her career, she was active with the Schenectady Civic Players, did conservation work and loved gardening at her camp on Lake George. After receiving many awards for her work as well as honorary degrees, Burr Blodgett passed away in her home at the age of 81—a life well lived, indeed.