Kate Gleason was born the eldest of four children to William and Ellen McDermott Gleason in Rochester, New York, in 1865. Her father William owned a machine tool company that made gear cutting machine tools. He had invented the first beveled gear planer in 1874, which represented a manufacturing advance, since production could now be standardized and gears would not have to be cut by hand. When Kate was 12, her step-brother Tom, who kept the company books, died of typhoid fever. Kate started working on weekends at the Gleason Works and by the age of 15, she was keeping the books for the Gleason Works.
At age 19, Kate entered Cornell University, where she was the first woman to enter the Mechanical Arts Program. Her time at Cornell ended within the year when William summoned Kate home to straighten out the books at the Gleason Works. In 1888, Kate went back to Cornell for a brief time and took several courses at Cornell’s Sibley College of Mechanical Engineering. She also took courses at the Mechanics Institute (known today as the Rochester Institute of Technology).
Kate worked on promoting Gleason Works products, particularly the beveled gear planer. In fact, she became so strongly identified with the planer that many people thought she had invented it. In 1890, when the Gleason Works was incorporated, she became the company’s Secretary-Treasurer. Kate also served as Chief Sales Representative for the Gleason Works and traveled widely on behalf of the company, including a trip to the 1900 Paris Exposition. This made the Gleason Works one of the first American companies to establish themselves in overseas markets.
Kate left Gleason Works in 1913 after a family dispute. In 1914, a bankruptcy court appointed Kate receiver for the Ingle Machine Company, which had $140,000 in debt. Eighteen months later, Kate returned the company, now worth over $1,000,000, to its shareholders.
In 1917, the United States entered World War I. Kate became president of the First National Bank of East Rochester when the bank’s president, H.C. Eyer, left to enlist in the American Expeditionary Forces. She served as the bank’s president for the duration of the War, and is considered to be the first woman bank president in the Rochester area (and possibly the nation).
While Kate was serving as the President of the First National Bank, she became involved in real estate and the development of low-cost housing. To stimulate the Rochester economy, Kate used standardized plans, mainly unskilled workers and a new method of pouring concrete to erect Concrest, a 100-unit development of cement houses in East Rochester. The houses are still standing and being lived in today. As a result of this housing project, Kate became the only woman member of the American Concrete Institute.
After the war, Kate traveled to France, where she helped rebuild the village of Septmonts. In addition to constructing housing in Septmonts, she saw to it that the village would have a public library and a movie theater. Kate also oversaw the reconstruction of the village’s twelfth century castle tower.
After her sojourn in France, Kate went to California. She served as an advisor to the city of Berkeley on the reconstruction of several buildings after a fire and started another concrete homes project in Sausalito. During the same period, Kate also traveled to Beaufort in South Carolina where she planned to develop a resort community for artists and writers. The resort was still under development at Kate’s death and would be completed under the supervision of her younger sister Eleanor.
Kate Gleason died of pneumonia on January 9, 1933 in Rochester, New York, and is buried in the Riverside Cemetery. She left an estate worth over $1 million, much of which went to a variety of philanthropic and charitable projects. The City of Rochester used money to establish a local history alcove at the public library. The Rochester Institute of Technology, another the beneficiary, named its College of Engineering after Kate Gleason. One of the RIT residence halls is also named in her honor.