By Bill Buell
NISKAYUNA- Who was Edith M. Boldebuck? If you get your groceries at the ShopRite in Niskayuna and have noticed the two historical murals by the store’s east entrance, you might be asking yourself that question.
The two murals are collages, made up of photographs relating to the history of the town of Niskayuna and Schenectady County. The one mural is dominated by an image of a historical marker with Boldebuck’s name on it, and if you take the time to read it you’ll discover she worked as a scientist for the General Electric Company. The marker itself, put up by Gov. George Pataki’s administration in the 1990s, is actually near the traffic circle just outside GE Global Research.
“She was a chemist at the research center, and she came her in 1945, I presume right after the war,” said MiSci senior archivist Chris Hunter. “In some old articles about her it said that she liked to repair doorbells as a child and fix things rather than play with dolls. She got her PhD at the University of Chicago, worked here until 1980 and then died the next year.”
Boldebuck is credited with 31 patents during her time with GE.
“Even today, women are named on only 18 percent of the patents granted annually, so she was very significant,” said Hunter. “She worked with plastics, and her major contribution seems to be developing a plastic called noryl. It was a strong plastic that was fire retardant and had good electrical resistance.”
Boldebuck worked at GE from 1945 to 1980, living much of that time at 704 Union Street and also 609 Union Street.
“Like a lot of inventors, she loved going to the library, and she lived pretty close to it,” said Hunter. “She also loved to read detective stories, and also did a lot of reading on sociology and psychology.”
When she retired in 1980, Boldebuck moved back to the Chicago area and died a year later in 1981. According to Hunter, she evidently remained single and had no children.
In the history of women workers at GE, Boldebuck is a very important figure according to Julia Kirk Blackwelder, a Ballston Spa resident and Burnt Hills native whose 2014 book, “Electric City: General Electric in Schenectady,” tells the history of the company. She is the third women to have a major impact on scientific research at GE, following Edith Clarke (1883-1959) and Katharine Burr Blodgett. Clarke was a Maryland native who in 1926 was the first woman to present a paper before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. She began working at GE soon after that and left to teach at the University of Texas in 1947. Blodgett, meanwhile, was a Schenectady native and the first women to get a PhD in physics from Cambridge in 1926. She had started working at GE in 1918 and after finishing her education returned to Schenectady and remained with the company until her retirement in 1963. She died in 1979.
“She was one in the core of women who had slightly improved access to higher education because of World War II,” Kirk Blackwelder said of Boldebuck. “There was a generation of women who got their degrees in higher education as a consequence of there being labor needs and a shortage of men to fill them. The universities opened their doors to women during the war because the men weren’t there.”
Kirk Blackwelder came across an old GE Newsletter which talked about Boldebuck’s contribution.
“Many have benefitted from her patience, understanding and willingness to help solve other people’s difficult problems, and from her skills in teaching young employees how to deal with the complexities of industrial science,” the article said.
According to ShopRite headquarters in Edison, N.J., the company often includes a historic image or two in its stores.
“When we open a new ShopRite store or renovate a ShopRite, we like to reference the community and connect with our neighbors and a mural is one of the ways we do that,” said Karen O’Shea, a company spokesperson. “In this case, we did visit the local historical society to look for photos that we could use and that’s how we came up with the mural for the Niskayuna store. Community is important to ShopRite and that’s why we also support many local organizations, including veteran, children and faith-based groups.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Bill Buell