2019 marks the centenary of India’s first female electrical engineer. Mrs. Ayyalasomayajula Lalitha BEng, MIEE was born in Chennai, India in 1919. At the age of 15 she was married and three years later, her daughter Syamala entered the world. Just four months postpartum, her husband suddenly died.
Left a widow at such a young age, Lalitha was granted the support and blessing of her father to pursue her secondary education at the otherwise all-male College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG) where he was a professor. Defying what were considered the social norms for conduct of a widow, Lalitha saw only 2 other women matriculate at the university to study civil engineering during her tenure as a student.
Defying the Norms
After defying the odds and earning her electrical engineering degree in 1943, Lalitha completed her practical training with a one-year apprenticeship in Jamalpur Railway Workshop, a major repair and overhaul facility. Her first official postgraduate job was as an Assistant Engineer at the Central Standards Organization of India. Proving a testament to the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child,” Lalitha lived with her brother’s family who assisted by looking after her young daughter while Lalitha pursued her dreams in her career. In 1948, five years after earning her degree, Lalitha made the jump to the company she would spend the rest of her career working for: Associated Electrical Industries (AEI).
At AEI, Lalitha became a Design Engineer specializing in power transmission equipment including protective gear, substation, and generator design. The most significant project to note her work on was that of the Bhakra-Nangal Dam in northern India, one of the highest gravity dams in the world at 741 ft (226m).
A bulk of Lalitha’s career was spent on contract engineering, serving as an intermediary between equipment manufacturers in England and the installation and servicing engineers local to India. While her ‘home base’ office for AEI was in Kolkota (Calcutta) India, her role as an intermediary necessitated frequent field visits between installation sites and manufacturing sites. In 1953, The Council of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE), London, elected her to be an associate member. This venerated organization began in 1871 and was Incorporated by a Royal Charter in 1921.
Further Awards and Accolades
Lalitha’s achievements quickly brought her to global prominence. In 1964, she was the only female engineer from India to attend the First International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists (ICWES) in New York. The following year, she was elected a member of the British Women’s Engineering Society. The WES, created after the First World War, is a professional society with membership based upon qualification and experience, of which Lalitha had plenty. Completing the triad of professional accomplishments, in 1966 her membership to IEE was promoted from associate member to full-fledged member.
“Today, I can understand how important my mother is in the history of women’s education in India as well as in the history of engineering,” said Lalitha’s daughter Syamala Lalitha. “Back then, all I knew was… my mom is an engineer – just another engineer.”
Succumbing to a brain aneurysm at the young age of 55, Lalitha left a legacy affecting both her immediate family, many of whom went on to become engineers, as well as the engineering industry and India as a whole.
This story was written using “Magnificent Women” article on Ayyalasomayajula Lalitha as their Engineer of the Week in August of 2019. To read the story on their page, click here.