Catherine "Kate" Gleason became a legend for her achievements in the construction and machine-tool industries, was the first woman member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, pioneered the development of low-cost housing, and became the first woman member of the American Concrete Institute, earning the nickname "Concrete Kate".
Gleason was born to William Gleason and Ellen McDermot Gleason on November 24, 1865 in Rochester, New York, the first of four children. Her father, an Irish immigrant, owned Gleason Works, a machine-tool factory he had founded that same year. Her mother was a good friend of the suffragist, Susan B. Anthony, who probably influenced the Gleason family regarding the role of women in society. Growing up, Gleason was a tomboy and very competitive.
Enters the Family Business
In 1877, Gleason's half-brother Tom died at the age of 18, leaving her father without an assistant to run his company. Gleason, only 11 at the time, took it upon herself to help. By the age if 14, Gleason was the company's bookkeeper. Four years later she became the first woman to enter Cornell University's engineering program. She also briefly attended the Sibley College of Engraving and the Mechanics Institute (now the Rochester Institute of Technology).
Gleason did not finish her degree because her father could no longer afford to pay her replacement. He asked her to return home before her first year was completed. Though disappointed, Gleason applied her talents to the company operations and by 1890 (at age 24), she was both the secretary-treasurer and chief sales representative.
Gleason decided to expand the company's markets overseas and made her first trip to Europe three years later. She returned from a tour of England, Scotland, France, and Germany with orders from some of the most prestigious companies in Europe. Her trip represented one of the earliest attempts by an American manufacturer to establish overseas markets and it was made by a woman. Gleason machines are now installed in more than 50 countries and between 65-70% of its products are shipped outside the United States.
Switches to Banking and Construction
Gleason's strong will and forceful personality led to clashes with her siblings about the business. Her family may also have been jealous about her fame from incorrectly being identified as the inventor of the bevel gear planar (which eliminated hand cutting), that was actually her father's invention. Henry Ford is quoted to have said that the gear planer was "the most remarkable machine work ever done by a woman", although Kate herself never claimed to have had a large role in the invention. So, in 1913, Gleason left the company to pursue another career. That same year, Verein Deutscher Ingenieure elected her to membership, the first woman to be so honored. In 1914 Gleason became the first woman to be appointed receiver by a bankruptcy court in New York State regarding the Ingle Machine Co.
Gleason then applied her business skills to the banking industry, becoming one of the first American women presidents of a bank (the First National Bank of East Rochester). While at the bank, Gleason helped launch eight new businesses and conceived and promoted large-scale development of low-cost tract housing.
Her first development was Concrest, a subdivision of 100 poured-concrete houses (using a method she had developed), a country club, a golf course, and a park. She applied the technique of standardization and mass production of homes after being inspired by a visit to an automotive factory assembly line.
Immediately following World War I, Gleason applied her construction knowledge in Europe, restoring most of the French village of Septmonts. She purchased some of the buildings in the project, including twelfth-century battlements, hired villagers in the restoration project, and returned one building to the town after converting it into a library and movie theater.
During the 1920s, Gleason brought her affordable housing concept to other areas of the United States, including Sausalita, California, and Beaufort County, South Carolina. In Beaufort, she started a writers' and artists' colony resort, which her sister, Eleanor, continued after Kate's death. Gleason was ahead of her time, developing beach property, a golf course and clubhouse--all in her vision of Beaufort County as a center for tourism. The Kate Gleason Memorial Park at Beaufort Memorial Hospital now remains a tribute to her generosity and creativity. In 1924, Gleason acted as advisor to Berkeley on rebuilding the city after a major fire. In 1930, she served as ASME's representative to the World Power Conference in Germany.
Gleason died January 9, 1933 of pneumonia at the age of 68. She gave away the bulk of her wealth before her death, but still left an estate of $1,400,000 that benefitted medical, educational, and charitable institutions. In 1998, the Rochester Institute of Technology's College of Engineering was named after her, the first American engineering college to be named after a woman.
Selected Writings by GleasonPeriodicals
- "How a Woman Builds Houses to Sell at a Profit for $4,000." Concrete (January 1921): 9-14.
Farnes, Patricia and G. Kass-Simon. Women of Science: Righting the Record. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990
McHenry, Robert, ed. Her Heritage: A Biographical Encyclopedia of Famous American Women. Cambridge, MA" Pilgrim New Media, Inc., 1994.
Vare, Ethlie Ann and Greg Ptacek. Mothers of Invention: From the Bra to the Bomb: Forgotten Women & Their Unforgettable Ideas. New York: William E. Morrow, 1988
Bartels, Nancy. "The First Lady of Gearing." Gear Technology http://www.geartechnology.com/mag/gt-kg.htm
Bois, Danuta. "Kate Gleason." Distinguished Women of Past and Present. http://www.netsrq.com/~dbois/gleason.html.
Gleason, Janis. Correspondence with Laurel Sheppard, April 2, 1999.
Lindsley, Kathy. Press release and correspondence. Rochester Institute of Technology. March 15, 1999.