by Hanno van der Bijl
This blog post briefly (and imperfectly) outlines the work and lives of three elevator women who have made, or continue to make, valuable contributions to the elevator industry. Their example can help curb the misogyny that continues to be a problem to varying degrees throughout the world, and inspire women to be brave in pursuing their vocational pursuits.
The Part-Time Inventor
Harriet Ruth Brisbane Tracy was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1834. Her father, William Brisbane moved the family to New England before the Civil War. Tracy married Cadwallader Colden Tracy in 1860, and lived in New York during the 1860s-1890s. She and her family moved to Paris and then on to London, where she lived until she died in 1918.
Tracy’s obituary, written by her son-in-law, credits her with no less than 11 patents for inventions involving elevators, sewing machine and folding beds. We have a letter recognizing her elevator design, with features from her 1882 and 1889 patents and automatic hatchway guards, that was on display at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The letter was signed by five renowned engineers of the time: Lewis C. Grover, manager, Colt Firearms Company; John Thomason, inventor; William F. Durfee, sewing machine expert; and Frederick R. Hutton, professor of the Columbia School of Mines.
The Business Owner
Marie MacDonald was instrumental in forming what would become the first National Association of Women in Construction chapter on the U.S. West Coast in the 1950s. She was the first woman in California to receive an elevator contractor’s license in 1958, and she founded the elevator inspection firm, McDonald Elevator Co., in 1977. She has been recognized as the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce’s 1988 Entrepreneur of the Year, and she received the National Association of Elevator Contractors (NAEC) William C. Sturgeon Distinguished Service Award in 2001.
Before she became Mrs. Marie MacDonald, she became involved in the elevator industry when her father, Sherman Camp, owner of Dwan Elevator Co., asked her to install a new bookkeeping system at the family business. She later became office manager, and this led to an opportunity to sell the company’s products, such as the Hillavator, a hill-climbing system her father invented (ELEVATOR WORLD, October 1959). She earned QEI certification through NAESA International in 1976. After her father sold the company, she started her own — McDonald Elevator Co. — in August 1977. She sold the company after her husband, John McDonald, passed away in 1989. She then worked for Pacific Access, Contractors in Redwood City until 2013, when she retired. Pacific Access President Kurt Frietzche said: “As one of the first women to own and operate a business in this field, she showed great tenacity and gumption.” She remains active in organizations like the Vertical Initiative for Elevator Escalator Women (VIEEW).
The Otis Fellow
In 2006, Theresa Muenkel Christy, became the first woman to be named an Otis fellow. An ELEVATOR WORLD interview, published in March 2013, notes, “She is a named inventor of 14 patents (with several others pending).” In 2011, she was a finalist for the Connecticut Women of Innovation Award.
In 1986, she started her career as a software engineer at Otis simply because she wanted a job in Connecticut. She became more interested in the industry when she started working with the elevator dispatching group. She had double majored in Mathematics and Economics at Wellesley, Massachusetts in 1979, and then received an MBA from Babson College in 1987 after studying as a night student. Due to her interest in elevator dispatching, she also pursued and was awarded an MA in Mathematics/Statistics at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain in 2002. “During my studies at CCSU,” says Christy, “I was known as ‘the elevator lady’ because many of my projects had to do with elevator issues.”
Christy maintains that the biggest challenge in her career is “prioritizing all the work that comes my way….I have learned to be flexible enough to change direction and switch back and forth between multiple activities.” The strengths she brings to the table are her enjoyment of the subject matter, the relevant educational background, and her excellent communication skills, which she says “is important to my role at Otis, because I am frequently in training or customer situations where I am trying to explain something most people don’t think much about.” The most rewarding parts of her career, she says, are working on technical problems and working with customers.
Despite the highly technical nature of her work, she has kept her feet on the ground. During a work trip to New York City, she saw the impact on society that the elevator has: “I quickly learned that residents of NYC are very elevator savvy, and that elevators are a very real part of their lives — almost, but not quite, the way automobiles are to those of us living in the suburbs.” Another reality check, as it were, is that her husband of more than 30 years has sickle-cell disease: “This has added to the complexity of our lives but has also served as a frequent reminder of what’s really important in life.”
She continues to look forward to the future by setting goals. She says, “I want to continue influencing the way the industry looks at elevator metrics, both what they mean and what they don’t mean. I want to continue working in elevator dispatching as part of the team that develops world-class Otis dispatching products.”
Tracy, MacDonald and Christy — just three of many women in the elevator industry — are great examples to both women and men of the joy and power of service and success. In their respective arenas, they saw a need and faithfully served the interests of others. They bloomed where they were planted.
Dr. Lee Gray, “The Part-Time Inventor and the Industrialist”, Elevator World, February 2004, pp. 104-107.
Elizabeth Pate, “Otis Fellow Theresa Muenkel Christy Tells EW about Her Role in the Industry,” Elevator World, March 2013, pp. 50-53.
Kaija Wilkinson, “Having a Say: Marie MacDonald looks back on blazing a path for fellow women in the elevator industry.” Elevator World, May 2014, pp. 32-36.