Although she only lived until 1979, Ayyalasomayajula Lalitha — India’s first female engineer — will be remembered forever as a pioneer of equality, education, and engineering. Born the fifth child of seven in Chennai (formerly Madras) to a middle-class Telugu family, Lalitha married at just 15 and gave birth to her daughter Syamala soon after. Four months later, her husband passed away, and rather than grieving, she, with her father’s support (a professor himself), decided to pursue a secondary education. This was significant for Lalitha because widows were traditionally expected to fulfill more traditional roles in grief and beyond. However, she was determined to grow from her experiences, and engineering was in her blood—her father and brothers were also engineers.
A Rich Educational Background
Ayyalasomayajula Lalitha studied at the once entirely male College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG), graduating in 1943 with a degree in electrical engineering and earning the title of first female engineer in all of India. P.K. Thressia and Leelamma Koshie, both women engineers, also studied at the school and, although her juniors by one year, graduated at the same time as Lalitha because of changes to the program brought on by war. Together, these three women helped pave the way for women engineers all across India.
Once she graduated, Lalitha completed a one-year apprenticeship in Jamalpur Railway Workshop and accepted work as an assistant engineer at the Central Standards Organization of India in Shimla. She later assisted her father with research on both smokeless ovens and an electrical musical instrument (also known as the jelectromonium). Finally, she took a job at Associated Electrical Industries as a design engineer focusing on power transmission equipment, including protective gear, substation, and generator design.
As part of Associated Electrical Industries, she designed transmission lines and substation layouts for Bhakra Nangal Dam, India’s largest dam. As part of her job, she was often in the field. Her office, in Kolkota, was eventually taken over by General Electric Company.
By 1953, Ayyalasomayajula Lalitha had been elected as an associate member, and then a full member by 1964, of the Council of the Institution of Electrical Engineers. She was the only female engineer attendee of the First International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists (ICWES), held in New York. In 1965, she was elected to the British Women’s Engineering Society, where she was the representative for the Second International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists in 1967. She later retired from the workforce after 30 years.
Lalitha never remarried, instead deciding to live with her sister-in-law, who played a significant role in caring for Syamala. Throughout her career, she was a champion for women in engineering, granting interviews with magazines and newspapers about the value of women in STEM careers and encouraging women to attend conferences and enroll in school.
In 1979, Lalitha passed away. Even then, her influence as India’s first woman engineer remained. Syamala followed in her mother’s footsteps, studying mathematics and science and later becoming a math teacher while also raising children who became scientists. Lalitha’s inspiration stretches wide—within her family and even more across India.
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