Breaking the glass ceiling: Evelyn Roberts’ career in physics

This post comes from Alaina McNeal, the Public Services Outreach intern at the Rakow Research Library.

A hundred years ago, Evelyn Hortense Roberts began working for Corning Glass Works. Roberts was one of many performing laboratory work at the company, but one of only a few women at work behind the scenes.

Evelyn in the lab working on a project

Early CGW lab, ca 1917, i.e. Physical Lab. Making measurements in the Physical Lab.
Courtesy of Corning Incorporated Department of Archives and Records Management.

Roberts was born in 1893 and grew up in Wisconsin. She attended Milwaukee-Downer College and the University of Michigan to earn a Bachelor of Arts in mathematics with a minor in history. If you pull up the Michiganensian’s archives, you can browse the 1915 yearbook, and find photographs of Roberts in the senior’s section and with the Girls’ Glee Club. She was able to earn a degree in mathematics in 1919 when it was still fairly uncommon for women to attend college. Even today, female scientists, engineers, and physicists are in the minority. And yet, Roberts earned her degree, and would go on to contribute to products that would last generations.

Photo of Roberts pouring boiling water on a piece of Pyrex

Image of Corning Glass Works laboratory physicist Evelyn
Roberts, in 1917 or 1918, pouring boiling water from a teapot
onto a Pyrex pie plate as it rests atop block of ice on the roof
of a Corning Glass Works building to demonstrate Pyrex ware’s
thermal endurance. Courtesy of Corning Incorporated
Department of Archives and Records Management.

Roberts taught high school for a few years while attending college, before eventually arriving at Corning Glass Works (now known as Corning Inc.). Census data from 1920 shows she lived on Wall Street in Corning, New York, and her career is listed as physicist. While working at Corning, Roberts tested Pyrex baking ware extensively. She performed tests on melting points, conductivity, thermal shock, expansion, and viscosity measurements. A photograph from the Corning, Inc., archives shows Evelyn Roberts pouring boiling water from a metal kettle into a Pyrex container resting on a block of ice. The photograph was taken to show Pyrex’s thermal shock endurance and was intended to be used as a Pyrex marketing image. That idea was scrapped when the photograph was deemed un-photogenic.

After leaving Corning in 1920, Evelyn Roberts continued to lead a life full of laboratory work and travel. She returned to the University of Michigan to earn a Master’s Degree in Physics, and was awarded a $300 fellowship for the 1920-1921 school year. She was also elected to the Sigma XI fraternity, which is a group of scientists and engineers known for excellence in their fields. When she graduated in 1921, she was only the third woman to earn a physics degree from the University of Michigan. Roberts was a lifelong learner, returning to college for summer courses on topics like radio engineering, non-ferrous metals, and scientific writing.

Roberts’ work was varied, contributing to everything from airplanes to household equipment to welding. She was employed by companies like the Washington Agricultural Experiment Station, Sears, Roebuck, & Company, and the Glenn L. Martin Company. She worked in areas such as photomicrography, library research on chemical engineering, and household equipment testing. She wrote more than a dozen articles, including an article written with fellow Corning physicist J. T. Littleton on “A Method for Determining the Annealing Temperature of Glass” and a technical report on “Utensils for the Electric Range” for the Washington Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin.

In 1975, Roberts moved to Carolina Village, North Carolina, with her sister and spent ten years managing the library there. She passed away in 1991 at a nursing home in North Carolina at 89 years of age. A century after Roberts arrived at Corning, we’re happy to share her story.

Research contributions by Julia T. Bourg, Ph.D., on behalf of the University of Michigan Society for Women in Physics (SWIP). SWIP has worked to identify and recognize early alumni of the UMich Physics department, focusing on gender and racial minorities since 2014. Research contributions also by Evelyn Robert’s niece, Lauren Scott Mallory, and nephew, Robert “Bob” Park.

The Rakow Research Library is open to the public 9 am to 5 pm every day. We encourage everyone to explore our collections in person or online. If you have questions or need help with your research, please use our Ask a Glass Question service.

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