The First Lady of Gearing
With little formal training, Kate Gleason achieved remarkable success as both an engineer and businesswoman.
Kate Gleason was born in November, 1865, in Rochester, New York. In that same year, her father William had established a machine tool company and in 1874, he invented the first bevel gear planer machine, which allowed the company to make bevel gears more precisely and efficiently.
Bevel gears are gears that connect at an angle. For example, one bevel gear spinning on a horizonal axle turns a second gear that is spinning on a vertical axle. Bevel gears have many different applications, but are often used to change the direction of an operational force.
Kate Gleason grew up with the business and spent her childhood playing with and learning about gears and machines. By the time she was 12, Kate was working in the business. In 1884, she was accepted to the Mechanical Arts program at Cornell University. Unfortunately, she was needed back at the factory and was unable to stay and complete a degree. While working at the family business, she also studied part-time at the Sibley College of Engraving and the Rochester Mechanics Institute.
In 1893, Gleason toured Europe to expand the company's business - one of the first attempts at globalization by an American manufacturing company. She used her feminine appearance to her advantage, heeding some advice from Susan B. Anthony, who was a friend of her mother:
I went in for extremely feminine attire…I had my hair dressed and wore violets in my muff and some soft, frivolous gowns made. The attention to dress repaid me well. Some of my customers spoke to me twenty years after about a certain dress or hat that I wore when I made a sale. I learned to value clothes, to love clothes, and to use clothes.
The novelty of a woman selling machine parts often got her through the door, but it was her superior knowledge of machined parts and their manufacture that helped her close many deals.
With Gleason’s help, the factory became the leading U.S. producer of gear cutting machinery prior to World War I. Due in large part to her reputation in the machine-tool business, Gleason became the first woman elected to membership in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) in 1918. She was an active member and in 1930, served as ASME's representative to the World Power Conference in Germany.
Gleason had many business interests. During World War I, the president of the First Bank of Rochester resigned to join the military. From 1917 to 1919, she served as the president of the bank. It was the first time a woman had served in that role for a national bank. She went on to start several different business - the largest of which was Concrest, a subdivision with 100 low-cost, concrete box houses along with a golf club and park in East Rochester, New York. As a result of her work, Kate became the first female member of the American Concrete Institute.
Her business success earned Gleason considerable wealth, with which she was very generous. She supported many different civic and educational organizations - often through anonymous donations. She was also an active supporter of women’s suffrage.
Kate Gleason died in her hometown of Rochester, New York on January 9, 1933. She left an estate of $1.4 million for charity and education. One of the beneficiaries was the Rochester Institute of Technology, who named their College of Engineering after her.