Born on January 10, 1898, Katharine Burr Blodgett would become the first woman to be awarded a Ph.D in physics from the University of Cambridge. Her father, George Blodgett, was employed by General Electric as the lead patent attorney. Shortly before Katharine’s birth, her father was shot and killed in the family’s home located in Schenectady, New York. Following George’s death, General Electric offered a $5,000 ($138,888.89 – 2013) reward for the killer’s arrest and conviction. Though the killer was arrested, he was never convicted, due to the fact he hung himself in his jail cell. Thankfully the Blodgett family was not left in financial straits following George’s death. In 1901, they moved to France.
Following the family’s return to New York City in 1912, Katharine was enrolled at the Rayson School, a private academy which offered her the same level of education received by boys of that day. In the earliest years of her education, Katharine revealed an incredible talent for mathematics. She graduated from high school at the age of 15 and received a scholarship to Bryn Mawr College. Throughout her undergraduate years, she excelled in both mathematics and physics; then completed her BA in 1917.
Seeking to pursue a career in scientific research, Katharine spent part of Christmas break during her senior year visiting the G.E. plant in Schenectady where her father was once employed. One of her father’s former colleagues introduced her to Irving Langmuir, a research chemist for GE. During her conversation with Langmuir (who later received the 1932 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry), he told the 18-year-old student it would be necessary for her to broaden her scientific studies if she wanted to work for him.
In 1918, Katharine followed through on his recommendation by enrolling at the University of Chicago. Preparing for a job in industrial research, she wrote her thesis on the chemical structure of gas masks, convinced poisonous gases could be absorbed by carbon molecules. At the time, the US was in the grips of World War I, and gas masks were a necessary addition to the troops’ arsenal. When she was 21, Katharine published a paper in the scientific journal, Physical Review, on the topic of gas mask materials.
After she received her master’s degree in 1920, General Electric hired Blodgett as a research scientist. Her acceptance of the job made Katharine General Electric’s first female scientist. Working with Langmuir, the pair was busy with monomolecular coatings which were designed to cover glass, metal and water surfaces. It would be another 10+ years before she would discover uses for these coatings.
In 1924, Blodgett was awarded a position in the physics Ph.D. program at Sir Ernest Rutherford’s Cavendish Laboratory. The dissertation she wrote was on the behavior of electrons in ionized mercury vapor. In 1926, Katharine became the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in physics from Cambridge University.
Continuing her research at G.E., Dr. Blodgett devised a method for spreading the monomolecular coatings she and Langmuir had created onto metal and glass. Utilizing a barium stearate film, she applied 44 layers of the coating (Langmuir-Blodgett film) over the glass, transforming it into “invisible” glass, due to making the glass 99% more transmissive. On March 16, 1938, Dr. Blodgett received U.S. patent #2,220,660 for her “Film Structure and Method of Preparation”. This new “invisible” glass quickly found its way into cinematography and was used in 1939 during the filming of Gone With the Wind. It would also be used to limit distortion in microscopes, telescopes and eyeglasses.
Blodgett now began to study soap bubbles. In doing so, she learned the various colors on the bubbles differed in thickness. Blodgett then went to work on a color gauge which employed the concept that different colors were different thicknesses. She devised a method to reduce the molecular coatings on the glass to one-millionth of an inch and created a glass ruler as well to indicate the thickness. (the thickness of a standard sheet of paper equals 35,000 layers of film.)
During her career, Dr. Blodgett received eight US patents. For six of those, she was the sole inventor, and was co-inventor on the other two with Vincent J. Schaefer. She published 30+ technical papers in a variety of scientific journals and invented absorbents for poison gas, improved a variety of smokescreens and developed methods for deicing the wings of aircraft.
Dr. Blodgett made her home in Schenectady. Though she never married, she enjoyed an active lifestyle, participation in the town’s theater group and volunteering time with various charitable and civic organizations. Her summers were spent at Lake George where she pursued her love of gardening, along with her hobby as an amateur astronomer.
Katharine Blodgett died in her home on October 12, 1979. During her lifetime, she was on the receiving end of numerous awards. Beginning in 1945, Katharine received the Achievement Award from the American Association of University Women. She was chosen by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1951 as one of the 15 "Women of Achievement.” June 13, 1951 was declared to be “Katharine Blodgett Day” by the mayor of Schenectady in an effort to honor her for what she had brought to her community. Katharine became the first woman to receive the Photographic Society of America Award and the American Chemical Society honored her with the Francis P. Garvin Medal.