India’s first female engineer was a single mother from pre-Independence Madras.
Born on 27 August 1919, Lalitha Ayyalasomayajula came from a family of engineers. She was married at the age of 15, which was customary at the time. When she was just 18, her husband passed away, leaving her to raise their four-month old daughter, Syamala, by herself.
Ayyalasomayjula became a widow at a time when society’s attitudes towards women like her were cruel. “When my father passed away, mom had to suffer more than she should have,” says her daughter Syamala. “Her mother-in-law had lost her 16th child and took out that frustration on the young widow.”
In the face of such strife, Ayyalasomayajula, who was only educated up to the 10th standard, continued her education with the support of her father, who was a lecturer at the all-male College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG). Once she was ready to join undergraduate studies, she and her father not only had to convince the Principal but also take permission from the British government to enroll in her father’s college.
Ayyalasomayajula stayed at a girls’ hostel during the course of her studies and left her young daughter in the care of her brother while she visited them on weekends. After she joined, the college decided to open up to more women and two more entered: Ayyalasomayajula’s juniors P.K. Thressia and Leelamma Koshie (nee George). In 1944, Ayyalasomayajula graduated with an Honors Degree in Electrical Engineering. All of her certificates had handwritten ‘She’ in place of ‘He’.
After graduating, Ayyalasomayajula worked in the Central Standards Organization of India as a research assistant and also helped her father with his research into the Jelectromonium, an electrical musical instrument, a smokeless oven, and an electric flame producer. Together, they filed several patents. Eventually, though, financial issues forced her to move on to join a British firm, Associated Electrical Industries, in 1948. During her employment with them, she designed transmission lines and substation layouts for Bhakra Nangal Dam, India’s largest dam.
Ayyalasomayajula benefited from strong family support during these years as she worked. Her siblings and in-laws often pitched in to care for young Syamala. Although she believed that widows should remarry, she never did. “She never remarried and never made me feel the absence of a father in my life,” says Syamala. “…when my husband asked her [why she didn’t remarry] she had replied, ‘To take care of an old man again? No, thank you!'”
As Ayyalasomayajula’s career advanced, she became a strong champion for the cause of women in engineering, giving many magazine and newspaper interviews where she spoke of the importance of expanding the role of women in the field.
Thus, leading by example, Ayyalasomayajula paved the way for more women to take up the engineering profession in India. She was truly a legend whose story will never be forgotten, India’s first female engineer.
*We would not be where we are today if not for the women that came before us. This article is part of a series where we remember pioneering women from South Asian history and the contributions they made to the world.*