Many of us have read the personal accounts of women who during WWII were called upon to work in factories, as American men were sent over seas to fight the war. But did you know that the Advanced Development Group of Radio Corporation of America, a Lockheed Martin heritage company known today as the Advanced Technology Laboratories, spearheaded a ground-breaking program that trained women to be engineers?
The RCA sent a group of promising women students with prior college experience off for intensive college-level training at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Other industry leaders, notably Curtiss-Wright, did the same.
The first group of RCA Engineering Cadettes, comprised of 86 women from 17 states, started classes on Purdue’s campus on May 1, 1943. They underwent forty-four weeks of intense training in mathematics, drafting, shop, electrical circuit theory, electronics, and radio theory, among others. They donned flannel work shirts on the shop floors and toiled alongside their male counterparts in other classes.
These wartime Cadettes were the first women to invade the inner sanctum of Purdue’s engineering department, and with predictable results, as wryly noted in the March 1943 edition of Purdue Engineer: “The advent of skirts, light footfalls, and the lilt of soprano voices into the heretofore masculine environment…caused many a head to rotate through the angle theta and many a neck to exceed all previously known elasticity constants.”
The Cadettes remained focused. In February 1944 the first graduating class of seventy-three Cadettes went straight into jobs as engineering aides in one of six RCA Victor plants around the country. By war’s end, 137 women had matriculated through the program and gone to work for RCA.