Editor’s note (4/2/2017): This week marks the 100-year anniversary of the U.S. entry into the First World War. Scientific American, founded in 1845, spent the war years covering the monumental innovations that changed the course of history, from the first tanks and aerial combat to the first widespread attacks with chemical weapons. To mark the centennial, we are republishing the article below and many others. For full access to our archival coverage of the Great War sign up for an All Access subscription today.

By July 1915 the war had been going on for almost a year. German mobilization had proved to be highly effective at ensuring a steady supply of young, healthy men for duties in the army. But the armed forces of Germany (as with every country mired in the deadlock of the war) were so large that they needed to drain workers from every corner of the economy. Here are some numbers: the population of Germany  was about 67 million in 1915, the size of the army was about 5 million. More than a quarter of the young, fit, healthy men in the country were now in the armed forces. One source of replacement labor, of course, were the women of the country, who quickly began to find employment in areas that had previously been closed to them.

Women trainees learning the mechanics of a trolley car in Berlin, Germany, 1915.
Image: Scientific American, July 3, 1915

The Berlin correspondent of the Scientific American (the U.S. was still neutral at this point, so its citizens could still work in Germany) reported in this issue on how women workers were replacing the men in public transport there. There are some odd notes—to a reader in 2015—that seem to stem from the basic assumptions held by the writer in 1915 on the social and economic role of women. Here’s the entire text of the article:

Training Women To Be Car Conductors
By the Berlin Correspondent of the Scientific American

“Women as car conductors have soon become a common feature in Berlin as well as in other German cities, with their strange accouterment—skirt, cap and tunic. Timid at first, they were not long in getting used to the role they are called upon to play in war time. In fact, they are now as bold as their male comrades in distributing the tickets, shouting the names of stoppages and answering the inquiries of passengers.
“To choose these female guards from among the wives of those called to the colors, was a very wise measure indeed; in fact, it was killing two birds with one stone, as these women had, in any case, to be provided for. Since, however, nothing in Germany is done in a haphazard way, these women had at first to undergo the same theoretical and practical training to which regular tramway guards are subjected. This training is as comprehensive as could be desired. Those women appointed for tramway service receive tuition in the elements of electrical engineering, and by means of demonstration on dismantled bogeys and the various parts of tramway cars, are taught the details of their design and handling.  Experimental lectures, finally, prepare the candidates for the practical training in actual service, which are imparted by an experienced colleague.
“For practical reasons and in order to leave them time to attend to their households, these women are only employed for half the day. During the first months, they were only entrusted with service on trailers, but now they can even be seen on motor cars. In spite of all their willingness in doing this somewhat unusual work they will certainly be happy, some day, to resign their temporary charge to their colleagues and husbands.”


Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles from 1914–1918 on the economic aspects of the war. It is available for purchase at www.scientificamerican.com/products/world-war-i/