Women in Construction: Margaret Ingels

As part of our celebration of Women’s History Month, we want to highlight extraordinary Women in Construction, past and present. In this profile we spotlight Margaret Ingels, a pioneer of air conditioning and ventilation systems. Also be sure to check out the next episode in our Women in Construction podcast series. CEO Steve Harper interviews Julie Sands, Senior Project Manager for Lewisville ISD. Julie talks about challenges of managing rapid growth, best practices for ensuring that projects meet expectations, and the importance of maintaining control of project information. You won’t want to miss it!

Legend has it that Margaret Ingels’ interest in science began when she was still a young girl. She noticed moisture condensing on a cold glass one warm Kentucky day and wondered why.

That curiosity eventually led her to enroll in the University of Kentucky’s mechanical engineering program in 1911. She graduated in 1916, the first woman to receive an engineering degree from UK. She took a job in the traffic engineering department of the Chicago Telephone Company, but the following year moved to Pittsburgh and joined the Carrier Lyle Heating and Ventilation Corporation. She began studying “conditioned air,” but returned to the University of Kentucky in 1920 for her Mechanical Engineer professional degree — the first woman in the U.S. to obtain a masters degree in that field.

She then joined the American Society of Heating and Ventilating Engineers research lab. As part of a project for the New York Commission on School Ventilation, she invented a machine that measured how much germ-laden dust was present in the air of classrooms. Her work helped lead to the development of the Anderson-Armspach determinator, which became the industry standard for air filtration. As a result of her accomplishments, in 1926 she was promoted to Research Head.

Margaret also became an expert on air conditioning, developing an equation that measured human comfort in relation to hear, humidity, and air movement. She also helped design the sling psychrometer, a device that measures relative humidity. In 1931, Willis Carrier recruited her to return to his company.

The Mother of HVAC

In the early 1930s, air conditioning was still a relatively new technology, used almost exclusively in industrial buildings and big public spaces like theaters. Margaret saw the benefit for individual homes, particularly those in Southern climates. Willis Carrier agreed and began to focus on the development of smaller residential AC units. He put “America’s first woman air conditioning engineer” in charge of a campaign to educate the public about the benefits of air conditioning. President Hoover even invited her to Washington, D.C. to attend the President’s Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership.

The Great Depression and America’s entry into World War II slowed both residential and commercial use of air conditioning. But after the end of the war, many Americans moved away from cities and into suburbs thanks to GI Bill home loans and more affordable construction techniques. New home air conditioning systems also facilitated a mass migration south and west, with home growth in those areas nearly doubling each decade.

Through speeches and writing, Margaret became an advocate for air conditioning technology, helping lay a foundation for its rapid adoption as economic conditions became more favorable during the post-war boom. 

Blazing a Trail

Over the course of her career, Margaret gave more than 200 talks on heating and ventilation, many to women’s groups. Her most famous was her “Petticoats and Slide Rules” speech to the Western Society of Engineers in Chicago on September 4, 1952, shortly before her retirement. In it, she paid tribute to the women who had preceded her and followed her into engineering. She argued that they all shared a mutual obligation to lower the barriers for future female engineers:  

“The woman who joins the procession of engineers today, tomorrow, and tomorrow’s tomorrow benefits by a rich heritage bequeathed to her by (those who came before). She assumes automatically the responsibility to further prove that petticoats and slide rules are compatible, and she must not carry the responsibility lightly. Her task is to widen the trails blazed for her —and more. She must build them into great highways for women engineers of the future to travel, free of prejudices and discrimination.”

Margaret also published more than 45 technical papers as well as many articles for magazines and journals. She even wrote a biography of Willis Carrier and served as the librarian and engineering editor for the Carrier Corporation. 

In 1957, Margaret received an Honorary Doctor of Law degree from the University of Kentucky, and was named a Distinguished Alumna in 1965. After retirement, Margaret moved back to Kentucky where she stayed until she passed away on December 13, 1971 at age 79. She was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) in 1996. And in 2005, a dormitory named for her opened at the University of Kentucky. Designed as a “living-learning community,” it included specialized programming for a cluster of female engineering students living in a Women in Engineering Wing.

Lessons for the Future

Margaret Ingels’ example isn’t just inspiring – it’s educational. The principles that helped her overcome barriers to become a nationally-acknowledged expert in her field can also help construction project owners be more consistently successful in managing projects.

  • Be curious: Margaret’s story starts with a question: what makes water condense on a cold glass? Involved owners likewise are curious about what’s happening on their job sites and why. Asking good questions both empowers project stakeholders and improves accountability. It also helps project teams learn from both successes and setbacks so they can create a sustainable system for creating predictable, positive results.   
  • Leverage data: Margaret wasn’t afraid to dive deep into the numbers, and owners and their representatives shouldn’t either. Mastering the underlying data provides the most accurate picture of a project’s health, which is why having maintaining secure document control and visibility into budgets, schedules, field reports, and other information is absolutely essential for ensuring that the job finishes on-time and on-budget.
  • Educate stakeholders: Over the course of her career with Carrier, Margaret spoke to over 12,000 people, patiently explaining the principles and benefits of air conditioning. She understood that her success ultimately depended on their support. Likewise, any capital construction project involves hundreds of stakeholders, from architects and engineers to general contractors and their subs. And within the owner organization, internal stakeholders impact everything from budgets to public perceptions about the project. Owners should be diligent about communicating intentionally and regularly with those groups to ensure that they are all aligned around a central vision. Failure to do so can result in flagging support, confusion, and baseless rumors.

Construction project management software can be an invaluable tool in helping owners successfully implement those principles and others. To learn more about how Owner Insite’s collaborative, cloud-based solutions help maximize ROI and minimize risk, contact us for a demo.

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