Engineer of the Week No.117: Rosemary Ethel Elizabeth West (nee Lambert) MA MIEE, CEng (8th December 1928 - 6th February 2013)
On what would have been her 91st birthday we celebrate the work of Rosemary West, WES president and pioneering computer engineer.
Rosemary was born in 1928 in Lyme Regis, Dorset, the second daughter of Edward William Lambert, who followed his father into the family’s law firm in Burma before entering the British colonial service and rising to become the Director of the Crown Office in Burma (Myanmar). She was educated a number of boarding schools in the UK and even in Burma and India during the war years and was accepted to read maths at Oxford, where she was a rowing Blue. Having had a vacation job with Metropolitan Vickers, she changed to engineering and graduated in Engineering Sciences from Somerville College, Oxford, in 1951, only the third woman ever to do so from Oxford. She went straight into a graduate apprenticeship with GEC Ltd in Coventry and by 1957 was one of their electronic development engineers in the Applied Development Laboratories, working on specialised test equipment. The following year her daughter was born which led GEC to sack her, following which she taught in a school and also in Kirkcaldy Technical College. In 1971 she and her husband set up Westek Engineering Ltd, in Ibstock, Leicestershire, developing microcomputer systems, interfaces and computer-controlled transducers for test equipment and industrial controls. By 1967 she was a chartered engineer and a full member of the IEE. By the time she became President of the Society she was working as a microcomputer specialist in the Computer Centre at Loughborough University of Technology.
Rosemary joined WES in 1950 and by 1961 was chair of the Midlands branch, becoming the society’s president in 1982-3. She wrote several pieces for The Woman Engineer to stimulate members to think about the future of the Society. Given her own experiences of being made redundant and of trying to fit in a career with a family she was very interested in the whole issue of women returning to work after career breaks which must have tied in very well with her successor, Professor Daphne Jackson’s similar interests. She wrote an article, Engineering Management for Women, for the IEEProceedings and produced a WES booklet for schoolgirls, What is Engineering? She died in 2013, in the Isle of Wight.
Engineer of the Week No. 116: Maria de Lourdes Ruivo da Silva de Matos Pintasilgo, GCC GCIH GCL (18 January 1930 – Lisbon, 10 July 2004)
Pintasilgo was a chemical engineer and Portuguese politician. She was the first and to date only woman to serve as Prime Minister of Portugal, albeit for only 100 days, in 1979.
Educated at a Lisbon secondary school, she was an enthusiastic member of the compulsory youth organisation, Mocidade Portuguesa Feminina, and also joined Acção Católica (Catholic Action). She then went to the Instituto Superior Técnico graduating in industrial chemical engineering in 1953. Whilst there she became active the Catholic's women's student movement, which was the start of her political interests. Her first job after university was as a graduate trainee with the national Nuclear Energy Board. She then moved to one of Portugal’s oldest and largest engineering conglomerate with interests in cement plants, Companhia União Fabril. By 1954, she held the position of chief engineer of the research and projects division, from which she became responsible for the company's technical journals, until she left in 1960, thus ending her period as an engineer. Her political career developed with various organisations in the Roman Catholic laywomen's movement whilst working for the government's program for development and social change. In 1974 she was appointed secretary of state for social welfare in the first provisional government following the revolution, rising to become Minister of Social Affairs by early 1975. In 1975, Pintasilgo became Portugal's first Ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO. In 1979 the Portugese president asked her to become Prime Minister of the Portuguese caretaker government, for a period of 3 months, making her the 2nd woman prime minister in Europe (after Thatcher). Although her term of office very brief she was able to use it to introduce some social welfare reforms and later was elected to the European Parliament. She died in 2004 but since 2016, the Instituto Superior Técnico awards the Maria de Lourdes Pintasilgo Award to 2 female engineering graduates.
Engineer of the Week No. 115: Isabel Hodgson Hadfield, MSc, DiplEd., MSPA (29th January 1893- 6th February 1965)
Chemical engineer Isabel Hadfield spent most of her career in research at the NPL. We do not generally think of fabrics as engineering materials these days but in the early days of aviation, cotton and linen were the usual coverings for aeroplanes’ wood-framed structures. Her research, initially for this purpose but later for more general industrial needs, looked at the effects of the mild acids used to process cloth and of sunshine on cotton fabrics. Her approach was entirely that of the engineer: the physical and chemical structures and properties of the material under consideration in respect to the stresses and strains which would be required of it.
Born in Hampshire, where her father was a schoolmaster, she was mainly raised in north east London. She graduated from East London College (now Queen Mary College) with a BSc in chemistry in 1914, then took a Diploma of Education and became a chemistry mistress for the Birmingham Education Council. In 1917 the demands of the war effort led her to join the National Physical Laboratory, where she would remain for a full career as a researcher. Her war work was, as discussed already, on the deterioration properties of cotton and linen in aeronautical use, on which she co-authored her first paper in 1918. In 1923 she gained an MSc in chemistry from East London Technical College, with her dissertation being on ‘doped’ fabrics. Her work on cotton, now for industrial purposes, continued through the 1920s, including the publication of 4 more papers, one of which she gave at the at Conference for Women in Science and industry, at the Empire Exhibition, Wembley,16th July 1925, later published in The Woman Engineer. In 1927 she was part of the NPL total solar eclipse expedition, for which she was to have provided the colour and photometric photographs, except that the entire proceedings descended to “a solemn farce” due to the total cloud cover for most that day! Her later career took her into metallurgy and research methods and by 1947 she was the most senior woman at NPL: a PSO in the Metallurgyy section, and was publishing on a range of related topics.
In 1933 she was one of the founder members of the Micro-chemical Group within the Chemistry Society (now RCS) and in 1944 was admitted as member to Society of Public Analysts. In 1948 she was the only woman on the committee developing BS1428 on microchemical analysis standards. She had a full career at the NPL, retiring at the usual age for women in 1953, with the rank of Principal Scientific Officer. She never married and died in Winchester in 1965.
Engineer of the Week No.114: Catherine Anselm ‘Kate’ Gleason, MASME (25 November 1865 – 9 January 1933)
In the week of her 154th birthday we remember the USA’s first woman engineer, “Concrete Kate” Gleason, mechanical engineer and house builder.
Kate Gleason, although one of the first women admitted to ASME (1918) and the first to be admitted to Cornell (1884) to study engineering, never completed an engineering degree. Much of her engineering was learned the practical way, from childhood work in her father’s factory, Gleason Works, which specialised in gear-cutting machines. After many years helping her father’s firm, latterly as a salesperson, in 1914 she left to take up an appointment as receiver of bankruptcy for the Ingle Machine Company. She is believed to have been the first woman to take on such a role, but the first woman to do so. She was able to turn the company around, repay its debts and return it to its stockholders within a year.
From this success she moved on to building factories and housing in the East Rochester (New York state) area. She worked with local architects to design low cost housing using her own ideas for poured concrete construction, materials selection, and site management. Taking a lesson in the producton methods of the big automobile factories which she had visited selling her father’s machines, her sites were run more like Ford’s production lines, with every worker only having exactly those materials required for the immediate piece of work. The houses were in a Dutch style set in a garden suburb layout. Her concrete houses led to her becoming the first female member of the American Concrete Institute. She also built some houses in Sausalito, California and at her winter home in Beaufort, South Carolina where she had plans to make a community of garden apartments for artists. However only 10 of these were completed at the time of her death, in 1933, from pneumonia. She never married, considering marriage an impediment to her professional interests. Her summer home, the island of Dataw, she left to her secretary. She seems to have had a couple of patents but not to have made much commercial use of them. The University of South Carolina’s archives hold 2 home movies made by Kate, unfortunately none of the shots include any of her professional work.
Engineer of the Week No.113: Beryl Catherine Platt, Baroness Platt of Writtle CBE DL FRSA FREng HonFIMechE (née Myatt) (18 April 1923 – 1 February 2015)
As WES nears the end of its Centenary Year we remember the work of Beryl Platt who helped establish the Women Into Science and Engineering Year in 1984.
Baroness Beryl Platt was of the generation of women for whom the Second World War opened up a brief window of opportunity in engineering, only for the ‘marriage bar’ to shut it again. Her mathematical talent took her from Westcliff High School for Girls to Girton College Cambridge, where she was only the 9th woman ever to pass the mechanical science tripos with honours (1943) under the wartime accelerated degree programme. Cambridge of course did not at that time actually award the degrees which women had earned. The same programme directed her into aeronautical engineering at Hawker Aircraft Ltd, as a technical assistant in the experimental flight section of the Design Office. Her work analysed data from test flights of fighter planes, including the Hurricane, work which she later recalled as “I couldn’t ever let anyone down. We were testing and producing fighters which really made a difference to winning the war”. In 1946 she became a technical assistant in the performance and analysis section of British European Airways’ Project Department, testing new aircraft and ensuring compliance with UK and international safety regulations. However, in 1949 she married and the convention of those times was that married women retired from their paid employment. This, though, was the start of her long and productive political career from parish councillor, via the county council, to becoming an active Conservative peer in the House of Lords and chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission. Although her own career as an engineer had been brief, she made it her business to do much to support the opportunities for women in engineering. Her work setting up the Women Into Science and Engineering Year in 1984 and its subsequent programmes for girls and women, included rejoining the Women’s Engineering Society and serving on numerous engineering education related boards. Her eminent career in support of equal opportunities for women and technical engineering education led to many honorary doctorates, the CBE in 1978 and the Freedom of the City of London in 1988.
Engineer of the Week No.112: Elizabeth (Betty) Laverick (nee Rayner) OBE, FIEE, CEng, FInstP, SMIRE, HonFUMIST (25th November 1925 – 12th January 2010)
On what would have been her 94th birthday we remember electronics engineer, Betty Laverick.
Elizabeth Laverick was born in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, in 1925, into a family of second-generation chemists, her father, William Rayner, being a manufacturing chemist. Her mother Alice Maria Garland assisted with the administration of the business. She won scholarship to Dr Challoner’s Grammer School nearby, then a co-educational school, where she became the only girld in the Higher Schools Certificate class. She and her older sister were both strongly encouraged by their parents to go to University but Elizabeth’s November birthday meant Durham could not take her until 1943. She spent that year as a scientific civil servant at the Radio Research Station near Slough, as a Technical Assistant, Grade III. She graduated from Durham in 1946 with a degree in Physics and Radio (a special wartime course) and stayed onto to a PhD on “ Dielectric measurements at audio frequencies using a differential”. She married a fellow student, Charles Laverick in 1946 and in 1951 they were both hired by GEC Stanmore (Marconi Defence Systems Ltd.) where she worked as a microwave engineer, working on guided weapons systems. In 1954 Laverick moved to Elliott Automation (part of Elliot Brothers) as a microwave engineer, gaining commercial experience in microwave instruments and rising to become the general manager of Elliott Automation Radar Systems. She published papers on some of her work and was involved in the development of the airborne Early Warning system later known as the Nimrod. In 1971 she moved away from practical engineering to become the first female deputy secretary of the Institute of Electrical Engineers, which gave her the opportunity to pursue her interests in applying her management expertise to the Institution’s career development for members. In her reitrement in 1985 Laverick joined the Court of City University, as well as doing some work as a consultant in advanced manufacturing in electronics
Having joined the Women’s Engineering Society in the late 1950s, meet other women engineers and promote the career to girls, she soon joined the London Branch committee and the national council and became the society’s president in 1968/69. She continued her active involvement as Honorary Treasurer and was editor of the journal for 7 years.
As well as her OBE in 1993 she was also honoured with an honorary fellowship at UMIST and became a liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Engineers,. Her leisure interests included tapestry and music and she became interested in nursing homes for the elderly, eventually selling the family home in Amersham for that purpose. She married again shortly before she died, to Peter, her long time companion. She died in 2010.
Engineer of the Week No. 111: Jean Marion Taylor, BSc, FIWSc (29th February 1924-18th 1999)
Today we remember Jean Taylor, for her work the timber preservation industry.
Jean Taylor was generally described in her lifetime as an entomologist but, although that was the source of her expertise, perhaps today she might be considered to have been an applied biologist or bio-engineer. It remains commonplace to think of engineering as only being about the use of metals, and perhaps concrete, but wood is just as much an engineering material, requiring the same engineering mode of thought, in order to use it effectively, which she was certainly doing in her work.
Jean was born, on a Leap Day, into a modest background in Cardiff, Wales, where her father was a tobacconist and she had two younger siblings. She served in the WAAF during WW2, working on air-frame maintenance and becoming a skilled fitter. After the war she went to Cardiff University and gained a degree in zoology, which took her to her first job, in the Entomology Section of the government’s Forest Products Research Laboratory in 1949 to work for Dr. R.C. Fisher. Her work was on the prevention and control of wood-boring insect infestation. She led the evaluation of the newer generation of insecticides and was particularly concerned with the development of laboratory testing technology and how to apply laboratory results to industry. Her expertise led to involvement in drafting international standards with the European Standards Organisation, CEN, and in the International Research Group on Wood Preservation, and collaborations with colleagues in Australia. She published about 14 papers on various aspects of wood preservation from 1960-1991.
After 20 years at the FPRL she moved into industry, becoming the technical director at Protim Ltd., where one aspect of her work was the investigation of insect resistance of wood and plastic composites.
From becoming the Institute of Wood Sciences’ first female fellow in 1962, she was active in the organisation, on many committees, setting up its newsletter and becoming its president in 1986-88 Colleagues remembered her not only for her exacting attitude to her work but her skill in explaining its complexities in a very clear and engaging way. Jean was also an active golfer and member of the local branch of the Soroptimists, whose secretary and branch president she was for several years.
Engineer of the Week No.110: Peggy Lilian Hodges (11th June 1921 – 21st November 2008) OBE, MA, CEng, FRAeS, FIMA, HonFIET
On the 11th anniversary of her death we remember defence electronics engineer Peggy Hodges.
Peggy Lilian Hodges, was born in London in 1921 into modest circumstances which cannot have improved when her father Ernest, a credit draper, died when she was only 4 years old. She was educated at the Westcliff High School for Girls, in Essex and then gained a modest State Scholarship to take a degree in mathematics from Girton College, Cambridge in 1943. Her first job was as a radio engineer with Standard Telephone & Cable, where she worked on airborne communications and the ILS blind beacon landing equipment. In 1950 she joined the GEC Applied Electronics Laboratories at Stanmore, Middlesex, as a microwave and systems engineer, working on guided weapons. Missile projects included Red Dean and Sea Dart, which relied heavily on the systems assessments produced by Hodges and her team. She became an expert on simulation and systems, including assessments of random aberrations, types of dish stabilisation, target glint and sea reflection problems. She progressed to become Systems Manager and then Project Manager of the Guided Weapons Project (Sea Dart Guidance) in the Guided Weapons Division. She was consulted by other laboratories and government departments and was sent on government missions to the USA. She was a member of the Radome Electrical Performance Panel for Guided Weapons and aircraft for the Ministry of Aviation. Among other projects, Hodges worked in the Underwater Weapons Division on trials planning and analysis for air-launched guided torpedoes, and later worked on simulation, identifying problems affecting guided weapons systems.
Her work on guided weapons was featured in a BBC documentary in the 1960s, when she was filmed at work at the Ministry of Defence’s guided-missile firing range at Aberporth in Wales. In 1971 she was promoted to Deputy guided weapons project division manager (systems) at Marconi space and defence systems, within GEC. Her division did general performance work, systems studies, simulations, trials planning analysis. Hodges formally retired from GEC in 1981 but continued to do general systems consultancy for the Guided Weapons Division of Marconi Space and Defence Systems (MSDS), Stanmore.
In retirement she did voluntary work in an old people’s home, and was involved in the setting up, by the Institution of Electrical and Electronics Incorporated Engineers, of a new annual competition: the Girl Technician Engineer of the Year, later Young Woman Engineer of the Year. She was Chair of the Caroline Haslett Trust set up to encourage girls, by means of scholarships and competitions, to take up careers in engineering, and in 1982-3 was President of Soroptimist International St Albans and District. She was also a member of the Fawcett Society, was interested in ballet, opera and classical music.
Having joined the Women’s Engineering Society in 1960 she soon became a council member and was the society’s president in 1972-3
In 1959 she became an Associate Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and a full Fellow 10 years later, having already been the first woman to take the Chair at a meeting of the Royal Aeronautical Society, when the subject under discussion was "Guided Weapon Simulators."
In 1970 she received the Whitney-Straight Award for outstanding performance by a woman in the field of Aeronautics, and 2 years later she was awarded the OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, for her contribution to guided weapons technology. In 1994 Hodges became the first female honorary fellow of Institution of Electronics and Electrical Incorporated Engineers (IEEIE, later the IET).
She died in 2008 in Buckinghamshire and legacies include the “Peggy Hodges Prize” for the highest performing female student completing the second year of a full time MEng/BEng Engineering degree at the University of Hertfordshire.
Engineer of the Week No.109: Gertrude Lillian Entwisle BSc, AMIEE (1892 -18th November 1961)
On the 58th anniversary of her death, today we remember electrical engineer Gertrude Entwisle.
A Lancashire lass, Gertrude was educated at Milham Ford School, Oxford and then at Manchester High School For Girls, where she was awarded an Exhibition to enable her to attend Manchester University to study physics. She was one of the first women to attend engineering lectures at the University, after the engineering faculty decided to open its classes to women mid-way through her physics degree. She was the first woman to be admitted to the technical staff of British Westinghouse, the first woman member of the Society of Technical Engineers and the first Student, Graduate and Associate Member of the IEE (now the IET). She owned a threewheel Harper Runabout – acurious blend of motor-trike and small car. She worked mainly on the design of DC motors and generators until 1923 when she spent about 20 years working on AC before returning to DC motors during the Second World War. One of her largest designs was the DC motor for a motor generator flywheel set on the winding gear at Broken Hill mines in Australia. Towards the end of her career she became a specialist in large exciters for coal and hydropower stations. An early member of WES, she became Vice President in 1937 but yielded the presidency for 1938 to Caroline Haslett so that the latter could be president during the society’s 21st birthday year, but was then president for 1942. She retired from Metropolitan-Vickers in 1954, after a 39-year career, and died in 1961.
Engineer of the Week No.108: Pauline Mary de Peauly Gower MBE (Mrs Fahie) (22 July 1910 - 2 March 1947)
In Remembrance Week we remember Pauline Gower who set up and commanded the women’s Air Transport Auxiliary, in WW2
Pauline Gower, although from a privileged background, had to find her own way in her chosen career as a pilot, due to family opposition. She supported herself giving music lessons, in order to take her first flying lessons, gaining her A licence (private pilot) in 1930 and the following year got her B licence (commercial pilot) after lessons at the London aeroplane club, Stag Lane. This was where she met Dorothy Spicer with whom she went on to set up a commercial flying company, with a Gypsy Moth plane. Whilst Pauline went on to get every possible pilot’s qualifications, Dorothy did likewise in the aero-engineering side. However the business was short-lived and they went to join various air-display teams which were popular at the time. In 1938 she was invited to become a member of the Gorrell committee on aircraft safety.
As the Second World War approached, Pauline campaigned for women pilots to be allowed to do their bit. In 1939 she was appointed a commissioner of the Civil Air Guard. Later that year she was appointed as an Air Transport Auxiliary second officer and given the job of forming a women's section. The number of women pilots rose to 150, with a few flight engineers too, and they eventually flew all types of aircraft, from light trainers to four-engined bombers. Some of ‘her girls’ even gave their lives, including the most famous of all, her friend Amy Johnston. Pauline campaigned for and finally obtained the same pay for her women pilots as the men received for doing the same work, and was awarded an MBE in 1942. Her exceptional leadership skills led to her appointment as a director of British Overseas Airways, the first woman in such a senior position in any national airline.
Pauline joined the Air Section of the Women’s Engineering Society in 1931, and was an active member, speaking, writing articles for The Woman Engineer and promoting flying careers to members. In 1935 she joined its national council.
In 1945 she married and two years later gave birth to twins, but unfortunately died shortly afterwards.
Engineer of the Week No.107: Edith Mary Douglas (nee Dale) (13th November 1877 to 1963)
On the 142nd anniversary of her birth we remember WES president Edith Douglas.
Born in Cawnpore, India, where her father, George Desborough Dale, was in the Indian Civil Service. She was educated at home in England. Her marriage to Major Clifford Hugh Douglas in 1915 (his second, her only marriage) introduced her to engineering, financial and political matters, not least as he was a founder of the Social Credit Movement in the 1920s, on which he wrote and lectured widely. During the First World War her husband was an Assistant Superintendent of the Royal Aircraft Factory Farnborough, which gve Edith the unusual opportunity to be the first woman to fly in experimental bomber aircraft. When her husband became a co-director of the Swanwick Shipyard (Hamble River Yacht & Engineering Co.) on the River Hamble, she too became a director of the shipyard. Although she had no formal technical education, Edith was by no means a silent partner, but became fully involved in the technicalities of running the yard. During the Second World War of course the construction of yachts had to give way to Admiralty orders for small craft. It seems likely that she and her husband retired during or just after the war. Edith joined WES in 1932 and was President of the Society in 1938-9.
She had a daughter and was also a keen sailing racer, golfer and lawn tennis competitor and died in 1963.
Engineer of the Week No.106: Joan Elizabeth Strothers (Lady Curran) (26 February 1916 – 10 February 1999)
On our annual Remembrance Day, when we remember those who died in war, today we also remember Joan Curran, a woman whose invention helped to end the 2nd World War.
Joan Strothers was a Welsh physicist-engineer who was the inventor of the UK form of the WW2 anti-radar measure known as ‘chaff’ or ‘window’.
Born and educated in Swansea, where her father was an optician, Joan won a scholarship in 1934 to study physics at Newnham College, Cambridge. Although she gained an honours degree (1937) this was still 10 years before Cambridge actually awarded any degrees to women. She then won a government grant to study for a PhD in Philip Dee’s group at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, where she excelled at practical experimental work. The Second World War intervened and the PhD was abandoned in favour of the wartime needs. Dee took the group initially to the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, only for their section to be immediately evacuated to the physics department at the University of Exeter. Joan was in a group with her future husband (Sam Curran) led by John Coles and working on the development of the proximity fuse. They were put into Leeson House (now a field studies centre) in Langton Matravers, Purbeck, which had become a top-secret radar research centre. Their successful design of a proximity fuse, was manufactured in the USA in time to become crucial in the fight against the V2 bombs later in the war.
In 1940 Joan and Sam married and were both transferred to the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) near Swanage, where Joan was assigned to the radar countermeasures group. It was here that Joan devised the technique that was codenamed Window (or Chaff), which consisted of strips of metal to fool the enemy radar. She tried various types of radar reflectors, including wires and sheets, before settling on strips of tin foil 1 to 2 centimetres wide and 25 centimetres long that could be scattered from bombers. This was first tried out during bombing raids on Hamburg, resulting in a much lower loss of Allied planes than usual. Another use was to imitate the radar reflections that would be detected from a phantom invasion force of ships in the Straits of Dover so as to distract the Axis forces as to where the D-Day landings really were.
In his obituary of their mutual boss, Philip Dee, Sam said of this period: “When my wife (formerly Joan E. Strothers) was working at TRE on radar intelligence and countermeasures she carried out personally very early in 1942 the first experiment on ‘Window’ and this proved to be an experiment of truly major importance. I remember that at home she cut up a large amount of metal foil with her household scissors and then she organized the dropping of the thin metal foil strips from an aircraft sent up from Christchurch aerodrome. She had arranged that observation at the radar detection stations on the ground should be done. The effects on the radar screens were truly amazing and it looked as if a large fleet of aircraft was present. This first demonstration of ‘Window’ was cearly of outstanding importance to the whole of radar science.”
Some WW2 historians believe that Joan Curran made an greater contribution to the Allies’ victory than her husband’s work did. Chaff is still in use today by the world’s armed forces, and its use military exercises often causes confusing images on weather forecasters’ radar.
In 1944 both Joan and Sam were sent to the University of California, Berkeley, to work under the direction of Ernest Lawrence on the separation of isotopes of uranium as an important part of the Manhattan project (the development of the atomic bomb), following from their work (and joint publications) on nuclear physics at the Cavendish Laboratories. While they were in the USA Joan had the first of their children and her work in applied physics ended. After the war her husband worked first at the University of Glasgow and then became the first principal of the University of Strathclyde. Joan’s first child was severely disabled and she spent the rest of her life campaigning for the needs of the disabled, leading to her joining the local health board, special needs housing association and also established the Lady Curran Endowment fund for overseas students.
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Engineer of the Week No.105: Elisa Leonida-Zamfirescu, Dipl. Ing., MAGIR (10 November 1887 – 25 November 1973)
On her 132nd birthday we celebrate the life and work of Europe’s first female career engineer, Elisa Leonida-Zamfirescu.
Elisa Leonida was one of the first formally-recognised female engineers in Europe. Due to prejudices against women in the sciences, she was rejected by the School of Bridges and Roads in Bucharest, Romania. However, in 1909, she was accepted at the Royal Academy of Technology in Berlin. She graduated from the university in 1912, with a degree in engineering, specialising in chemistry. Although other women graduated in engineering around this time, and Alice Perry 6 years earlier, Elisa stands out as a woman who had a full career as a chemical engineer specialising in mining geology.
Born in the Romanian town of Galați, her father was an army officer but her grandfather and brother were both engineers. The Bucharest engineering school refused to admit her so she went to the Royal Academy of Technology Berlin, at Charlottenburg and then got her first job as an assistant at the Geological Institute of Romania. During World War 1 she ran a hospital and then married a chemist, Constantin Zamfirescu, with whom she had two daughters.
After the war she returned to the Geological Institute, where she undertook field studies, including some that identified new resources of coal, shale, natural gas, chromium, bauxite and copper. She rose from assistant to the head of a group of 12 laboratories, investigating ore and water quality, and produced thousands of analytical reports, as well as published papers on bauxite and chromite. Other investigations included germanium content of coal and other ores and additives for mineral oils based on acrylic resins. Many of the national standards for analytical work which she drafted are still in use today. She also taught in a girls’s school and at the Bucharest School of Electricians and Mechanics. Elisa was the first female member of AGIR association of Romanian engineers but in later life she devoted a lot of her energy to campaigning against nuclear weapons. As well as various honours during her life, there is now a national prize for women in science and engineering, as well as a street in her birthplace, named after her. In 2018 she had a Google Doodle on her 131st birthday.
Engineer of the Week No.103: Annabel Dott (nee Hall) (3 September 1868 - 5 November 1937)
On the 82nd anniversary of her death we commemorate the work of self-taught builder and electricity pioneer, Annabel Dott.
Annabel Dott was a self-taught builder-developer, and an excellent self publicist as well as an Anglican vicar’s wife.
Born in Stepney in 1868 and raised in Hackney as the single child of her widowed mother. She spent her thirties in Bournemouth nursing her ailing mother. When her mother died Annabel departed for South Africa where she married William Patrick Dott. It was in Woodstock, Cape Town, that she had her first experiences of working on a number buildings supervising the modification and repairs: remodelling the sadly neglected rectory; restoring The Treaty House; renovating school rooms. She later reported how much this had taught her about the processes of building - learning by trial and error - and of supervising workmen. That she valued her workers is indicated by the fact that she claimed it was important to pay them above union rates, that it was important to listen to them and that in at least two of her schemes she made presentations to a key member of her building team.
On her return to England in 1909 during an enforced period of convalescence following a still birth Annabel studied as if preparing for a Clerk of Works exam and then considered herself ready to undertake her first building project in this country. In the moorland village of Goathland, Yorkshire, she designed nine cottages intended initially as holiday lets and also an impressive detached house for herself and her husband. In 1917 the cottages, with some alterations, were made over to a charitable company for the use of disabled officers of the war. A period in Dorset near the army camp of Blandford, where Patrick was a chaplain, gave her the opportunity to write several significant articles (in The Nineteenth Century and The Architectural Review) about her work. The end of the war brought Patrick’s appointment to a parish in south London and Annabel’s energies were directed at new projects.
This period as she entered her fifties was perhaps the busiest of her life. In south Croydon she had a number of building projects - improvements to the vicarage, the building of a parish room, renovations to an old manor house and some conversions of a couple of large houses into flats for professional women. She was also involved for a brief time with the establishment of Women’s Pioneer Housing, an organisation providing small flats for single women of moderate means in West London.
Annabel also conceived her second and perhaps most significant project, an imaginative settlement of houses in East Sussex. At a distance of some 40 miles from the vicarage, she supervised the building of seventeen properties in 50 acres of woodland at Grey Wood, East Hoathly. A group of nine were designed around a quadrangle and had shared facilities which were run on electricity generated in a powerhouse which she had built. She wanted to provide for a community, but one in which the inhabitants did not feel forced into each others company. There were laundry facilities, a washer up (dish washer) and bakehouse together with some guest rooms and a flat. The houses had electric light, electric kettles and irons. She also paid a lot of attention to the outside environment, providing an extensive garden area and planting fruit trees and bulbs in the woods. There was a small lake created from damning a local stream; its water was important for the power house but it was also described as a boating lake. Elsewhere in the woods were three pairs of semi detached houses and one small detached house.
During the building period as at other times in her life Annabel was again unwell, at one point describing that she had been brought to the site on a stretcher to supervise the building work.
The houses were originally let out but after only a few years Annabel was anxious to sell the estate as a whole or in part. This might eventually have happened in about 1930. It is still unclear how her housing projects were funded although there is evidence of mortgages taken out and redeemed, and the grand detached house in Goathland was sold to a member of the Rowntrees’ family in 1920. It should be remembered that vicars of this period did not always have adequate incomes from their stipend and later from their pensions, and that they may have undertaken other work or devised entrepreneurial schemes in order to supplement their income. This could be what Annabel had in mind when she first built the houses in Yorkshire.
Annabel’s final realised scheme was the design and building of a church hall for the parish church of St Mary’s, Barnes, to which she and Patrick had moved in 1923. Now known as Kitson Hall it has some trade mark Annabel features including stone mullioned windows and a covered verandah or stoep. The hall was opened in 1928. For the ensuing years Annabel and her husband continued their life in the parish community of Barnes. After a flurry of activity writing articles promoting her houses and the labour-saving value of the use of electricity, and then selling Grey Wood, Annabel and Patrick seemed to have settled into a quieter more conventional life at Barnes until that is there was a bit of a local furore about Patrick’s proposal to build flats on the rectory grounds. In this he was supported by Annabel, although the plans do not seem to have been hers, and at the resultant public enquiry evidence in support of the scheme was given by a high profile planner, Professor Adshead. The strain of the local bad feeling about the scheme as well as their continuing poor health may have led Patrick to organise a move to a quieter parish.
The last years of their life must have been spent in some distress Their new rectory at Winterslow was large and in a terrible state of repair. Annabel drew up a scheme for a new smaller rectory literally writing letters from her sick bed - she had had a heart attack - badgering the church authorities for approval. She died with this final scheme still unfulfilled and is buried with Patrick who died the following year, in the churchyard there. However, her three significant schemes live on together with the small parish room in Croydon. The houses in both Yorkshire and Sussex are delightful places in which to live and the church halls are well used and appreciated by the congregations. Annabel considered herself a master builder rather than a woman architect. She undoubtedly developed a range of skills and knowledge through practical experience and studying in the fields of construction, design, and technology. These, in combination with determination, forceful communication skills and some visionary ideas, meant that she achieved much in a realm not easily accessible to women of her time.
[Thanks to guest author, Lynne Dixon, for the text and images for this interesting woman]
Engineer of the Week No.102: Ilse ter Meer (nee Knott), Dipl. Ing., (14 October 1899 – 3 November 1996)
On the 23rd anniversary of her death we remember the work of mechanical engineer, Ilse ter Meer.
Ilse ter Meer was born in Hanover into an engineering family: her father Gustav was an engineer and director of Hanomag, designing waste water centrifuges. She studied mechanical engineering at the Technical University in Hanover (1919-1922), and then at the Technical University in Munich (1922-24), with another pioneer female engineer Wilhelmine Vogler, in the face of overt hostility from the male students. On graduating she married engineer Carl Knott. She set up her own consultancy in Aachen and worked on her father’s patented centrifuges (Schlammtrocknungs GMBH). In 1925 she became the first woman member of Verein Deutscher Ingenieure (VDI). She worked for various factories in Hanover and Dresden and in the Danzig shipyards and later worked for Siemens & Halske in Berlin. In 1929 became the Women’s Engineersing Society’s (WES) first German member. On the occasion of the World Power Conference in 1930 in Berlin, she organized the first meeting of German female engineers.
However, her negative aspects cannot be ignored: she continued to work at Siemens & Halske through the Nazi era. This company was heavily involved in armaments production during the Second World War, including the use of forced/slave labour and inmates of the women's concentration camp Ravensbrück.
After the war she resumed contact and active membership of WES and, in 1960, she was one of the six founders of the VDI committee for its women members – in 1975 she was awarded the VDI gold medal for her 50 years’ of membership. From 1956 she headed the office of the general agency of an American electrical appliance manufacturer. Despite her wartime association with the Nazis, she has been honoured with a street in Hanover: Ilse ter-Meer-Weg, and an auditorium at TU Munich is named after her. Leibniz University also awards an Ilse ter Meer book prize (Euros 5,000) for a book which promotes equal opportunities, family friendliness or diversity.
Engineer of the Week No.101: Irene Joy Ferguson, later Jonathan Ferguson, ARAeSoc (30th October 1915 - 31st May 1974)
On what would have been his 104th birthday we remember Jonathan Ferguson, pilot and technical civil servant.
Jonathan Ferguson, pilot and scientific civil servant, was born Irene Joy Ferguson on 30th October 1915, Wellington Street, Lurgan, Co Armagh, Ireland (now Northern Ireland). Her father was Edward Ferguson (1880-1947), a boot salesman, and her mother was Jessie Robertson Fyfe (died 1950). Ferguson had gender reassignment surgery in 1958 and lived the remainder of his life as a man, until his death in 1974. [For convenience of the narrative I will use the female pronouns for the part of Ferguson’s life when she lived as a woman, i.e. from 1915-58, and male pronouns from that point onwards. I am advised that it is nowadays the convention to use the gender pronouns of the gender to which a person has been reassigned but in this biography I feel this would make for a confused story and clumsy syntax. No disrespect is meant towards Ferguson’s ultimate gender choice.]
She was educated at Lurgan High School and Lurgan College. She became a “Lady Demonstrator” in Electricity Board showrooms, first in Northern Ireland and then in the South of England, whilst studying electrical engineering part time, probably at local technical colleges. Having won a public speaking competition organised by the British Electrical Development Association, she was introduced to Caroline Haslett who mentored her and helped her to find a job in the switchgear sales department at British Thompson-Houston, from which she was able to become a Technical Assistant TA2, under the Director of Technical Development, Ministry of Aircraft Production until she joined the ATA in 1943.
Although her employment records indicate that she did not have a degree, the grade she later reached in the scientific civil service were normally only open to graduates. Also, on entry to the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), she was noted as having a much greater technical background than their usual new entry pilots, most of whom had a great deal more flight experience than she did. She joined the volunteer Civil Air Guard and obtained her private pilot’s licence. She entered the ATA as a Third Officer and was promoted to Second Officer in January 1944. Joy was posted to a number of different Ferry Pools (FPs). Of these she spent the most aggregate time at No.15 FP, at Hamble. Hamble was one of only two Fps which were all-women, the others being mixed. Joy was not the most natural of pilots, for all her enthusiasm, and had to resit some of her practical flying tests, and remained at the Class 3 level, flying 26 different sorts of aircraft.
In October 1945 Joy was demobilised from the ATA and returned to her work as a scientific civil servant in the Ministry of Supply. It is not clear what her role was but may have been related to the production of Pilot Notes, the handbooks for new aircraft, which the ATA pioneered in their need to provide clear summaries of what pilots needed to know to fly a new aircraft quickly. She moved back to live in north London and 1948 Ferguson became an associate member of the Royal Aeronautical Society. At this time Joy had a commission as a Pilot Officer in the WRAFVR from 1949-54, acted as an advisor to the Girl Guides’ Air Rangers section for older girls and took an active interest in the complexities of the mathematics required for setting the handicaps for air races. She was active in the Women’s Engineering Society from 1947-57 and gave a talk on the handicapping maths to the London WES group in 1952.
In 1958 Ferguson announced publicly that he would be living as Jonathan, rather than Joy, following what in those days was referred to as “sex change” but which we now call “gender reassignnment” surgery. Interestingly, one of Ferguson’s ATA friends said that she had been told as early as 1939 that such surgery would have been possible then but decided to postpone it until after the war on the reasonable premise that she could serve her country just as well as a woman as a man. The change to living as a man resulted in worldwide press reports of this, stating that Ferguson’s civil service employers were unconcerned about the change and that he would continue with his work as before, but with an increase in pay to the male grade.
That she joined the Ministry of Supply in a technical role during the war would be unremarkable at a time when many women found such doors opening in the desperate need to release men for the front line. It is more remarkable however that she not only returned to that work after the war, when there was a very considerable social and legislative drive to force women out of their wartime technical work and back into the domestic sphere, but also remained and prospered into the higher ranks of the scientific civil service. She must have been doing valued work to achieve that and also to gain the unstinted support of her bosses when the time came to come out and become Jonathan.
We may never know the full story of what Jonathan’s work contributed to the development of aviation in the UK, but I think we can be sure that it held significance at the time.
Engineer of the Week No.100: Marion Katharine Petch McQuillan BSc, MIM, MBIM (nee Blight) (30 Oct 1921 - 4 June 1998)
In the week in which she would have celebrted her 98th birthday, we remember Marion McQuillan, metallurgist who specialised in the engineering uses for titanium and its alloys.
Born in Watford, Marion Katharine Blight came from a working class family, her father being a shop assistant and her mother working in domestic service. She was picked out early in her school days as exceptional and went to Wycombe High School and then Henrietta Barnett’s School on scholarships. In 1939 she went to Girton College, Cambridge, where she took a degree in natural sciences and metallurgy, enabling her to start as a Junior Scientific Officer in the corrosion section at the Royal Aircraft Establishment Farnborough (RAE) in 1942, with her new husband, Norman Petch, also a metallurgist, whom she had met at Cambridge. At the RAE she did research into metals for jet engines and was a member of the first team in Britain to carry out research on titanium. Despite her relatively junior status, she authored 5 reports at the RAE during 1944.
Her marriage to Petch did not last and they divorced in about 1944 and in 1947 she married yet another metallurgist, Alan Dennis McQuillam. After a year at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Hartwell, where she worked on some of the early metallurgical problems of nuclear energy, Marion and Alan went to new jobs at the Australian RAE in Melbourne.
On their return to the UK in 1951, she started what would be a career-long association with ICI Metals (also known as IMI), when she got a job as a technical officer in its Titanium Alloy Research Department. Two years later she had risen to become head of that section and in 1956 she and Alan published their seminal book “Titanium” which was subsequently also published in Russian. The 1960s were a very productive period for Marion’s work and professional standing. She registered 8 patents relating to titanium alloys. She rose to become the technical director of the New Metals Division of IMI in 1967 and in 1978 was appointed managing director of Enots, an IMI subsidiary, the first woman to become a managing director in the Imperial Metal Industries empire. Meanwhile she served on the Interservices Metallurgical Research Council (until 1989), was awarded the Rosenhain Medal in 1965 and elected vice-president of the Institute of Metals in 1967. The following year she was the guiding force behind the First International Conference on Titanium, organised by The Institute of Metals in 1968 in London.
Although she could presumably have retired in 1981, and despite her husband’s death in 1987, she seems to have continued with aspects of her life’s work well into her final years. Marion died in 1998.
Engineer of the Week No.99: Maria del Pilar Careaga (26 October 1908 - 10 June 1993)
On her 111th birthday we remember railway engineer and politician, Maria del Pilar Careaga.
Maria del Pilar Careaga is considered to have been Spain’s first female industrial engineer, but she also went on to have a significant political career, using her position to advance women’s opportunities, including the first women in Bilbao’s police force.
Born in Madrid, into an aristocratic family, she studied surveying and then completed her studies in industrial engineering at the Technical University of Madrid, becoming the first woman engineer in Spain, in 1929. In her final year she specialised in railway engineering and spent her practical internship as a train driver, becoming the first woman who drove a train in Spain, attracting a lot of media attention.
However, she did not pursue an engineering career but was soon involved in politics, supporting Catholic women’s groups. During the Spanish Civil War she sided with the Franco supporters and was imprisoned until 1936. In 1943, she married Enrique Lequerica Erquiza, also an engineer. In 1958 the Pope granted her the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross "in recognition of the services rendered to the Church and to society”, the highest award open to women in the church and the first of many major awards and medals she received.
In 1964 she became the first female elected as a provincial deputy (for Vizcaya County Council, and in 1969 she was elected to be Mayor of Bilbao, the first woman to hld a mayor's office during the Franco dictatorship. During her 6 years as mayor she oversaw many infrastructural and educational developments, but her alignment with the far right was becoming controversial and in 1979 she had the dubious honour of being the first woman to be shot by ETA (the Basque organisation Euskadi Ta Askatasuna). Although she survived a bullet in her lung, she retired from public life and died of liver complications in 1993.
Engineer of the Week No.98: Alice Jacqueline Perry BSc (Mrs Shaw) (24 October 1885-1 August 1969)
On her 134th birthday we remember Alice Perry, the first woman in Europe to get a degree in engineering.
In 1906 Alice Perry was the first woman In Europe to gain an engineering degree, the next women engineering graduates were not until 1912 (Nina Graham in England and Elisa Leonida-Zamfirescu in Romania).
Alice was surrounded by the inspiring work of her father, a surveyor who founded a electric light company, and her uncle who invented the Perry navigational gyroscope, but it was her own outstanding talent for maths that propelled her towards her engineering degree from the Royal University, Galway. When her father sadly died just after her graduation she temporarily took on his role as County Surveyor for Galway but was not appointed to the permanent post. The work, for which she had assisted her father during her university vacations, entailed extensive travel from Clifden to Gort, inspecting roads and buildings. To this day, no other woman has ever been a County Surveyor in Ireland. From 1908-1920 she was a Lady Inspector for HM Factory Inspectorate, in London and Glasgow. She married Robert Shaw in 1916, but he was killed on the Western Front the following year.
In 1921, as Mrs Shaw, she was promoted to Woman Deputy Superintendent Inspector in the Factory Inspectorate, but she retired from that work in the same year. She spent the rest of her career working for the Christian Science movement in Boston, writing poetry for the Christian Science Monitor and editing poetry for Christian Science journals.
Today, Alice Perry is the inspiration behind the the Alice Perry Engineering Building at the National University of Ireland Galway.
Engineer of the Week No.97: Georgina Elizabeth Kermode (nee Fawns) MIM (1868 - 5th September 1923)
Georgina Kermode, suffrage campaigner and engineer gave the lie to the old saying that beauty and brains do not mix.
Georgina Kermode, although born in England, was from a 3rd generation Tasmanian family and married into the richest family in Tasmania. A very beautiful woman in an era when women of her class generally did nothing much but socialise, Georgina (also sometimes Georgiana or Georgine) was a suffragette, metallurgist, engineering entrepreneur and holder of numerous patents.
She married landowner and ‘pastoralist’ Robert Crellin Kermode when she was only 17 and went to live in Mona Vale, a house so lavish it has 365 windows, 12 chimneys and 7 entrances, and is therefore nicknamed the “Calendar house”. 10 years later sees Georgina very active in the campaign for the women’s vote: running the Campbell Town Woman's Christian Temperance Union, despite the opposition of family and friends. As the Colonial Suffrage Superintendent of the WCTU, her aggressive propaganda initiative put pressure on politicians. She organised a 'winter campaign' in 1896, addressing well-attended drawing-room and public meetings all over Tasmania, gaining 2,278 signatures for a petition to parliament - a terrific result, given the small and isolated population. Perhaps this political activism was an education for her because another 10 years on and she is an engineer!
Robert also had mining interests and somehow Georgina became sufficiently expert in the rich metal ores of Tasmania that she became a director of the Tasmanian Metals Extraction Co. Ltd., whose mines are still operating at Rosebery in the west of the island. There were technical difficulties in extracting the metals from the ores and she took an interest in this and travelled to England, probably in about 1904 to look into the possibilities of electrolytic extraction for the treatment of the zinc-lead ores. It seems that she never returned to Australia, although her husband probably visited her in the UK when he took up an army commission in 1914.
From 1907 until she died, Georgina took out 27 patents (UK, USA, France, Switzerland and Denmark) for a variety of inventions. The principal focus for her during this period was automatic vending of postage stamps. She set up the British Stamp and Ticket Automatic Delivery Co. Ltd., whose machines were based on a design from NZ but with her various improvements which she patented, such as for detecting counterfeit coins. The Post Office started to buy the machines, with the very first being installed in the Houses of Parliament. The machines and the special rolls of stamps were known as ‘Kermodes’ but the system was taken in-house by the Post Office in 1920,
Georgina was the first female member of the Institute of Metals, elected on 21 December 1916, the same year as she patented her design for ‘Improvements in Furnaces for Refining Metal’. Other inventions included a series of designs for a self-contained breathing apparatus, for divers and firefighters, very similar to Jacques Cousteau’s SCUBA of some 30 years later. There was a regenerative breathing-apparatus to chemically refresh exhaled air, a harness with mask, air bottles and valves and a selfcontained diving suit.
Georgina and Robert had no children and she did not have good health in her later years although she was a regular attender at the Institute of Metals meetings and other mining-related organisations. She died in England but is buried in Tasmania.
Engineer of the Week No.96: Isabel Helen Hardwich (nee Cox), MA, CEng., MIEE1, MIOP, HonMWES (19th September 1919 – February 1987)
Today we remember Isabel Cox, photometry expert and electrical engineer and WES activist.
Isabel Cox, known to members of the Women’s Engineering Society by her married name of Hardwich, was born into modest circumstances in South London in 1919. She was educated at local council schools and then went to Newnham College, Cambridge where she gained a degree in physics. In 1941 she was one of the first batch of graduates to join Metropolitan Vickers’ ‘College apprenticeship’ schme in Manchester. This scheme was novel at the time, not only for taking women as well as men on an engineering apprenticeship but for its mix of practical work and explicit training for the graduates to become the firm’s future leaders. This included formal dinners for the apprentices, no doubt reported in The Rotor magazine which Isabel edited. Her first job after completing her apprenticeship was in their electron microscope division, then moved to the photometry laboratory. In 1945 she married colleague John Norman Hardwich, who was a man ahead of his time in his unswerving support for his wife’s work, even to the extent of joining WES and being involved in some committees. This enabled her to remain at work after they married at a time when this was still rare. In 1947 she joined the Illumination Engineering Society where she started her lifelong interest in educating the next generations of engineers. Metropolitan Vickers expected its staff to do external teaching, which Isabel did in various schools and colleges. In the 1950s Isabel set up a Hilger large UV spectrometer before she turned to X-ray crystallography and designed an X-ray Geieger counter spectrometer. She remained with MV, later AEI, responsible for the recruitment, training and general overseeing of their women engineers. She left AEI when it was taken over by GEC in 1969 and became Chief Clerk to the Open University in Manchester until she retired ten years later.
Isabel joined the Society in 1941, became President in 1961-62 and was then very involved in setting up the International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists (ICWES) as well as numerous other activities relating to encouraging young women to become engineers. She was made an Honorary Member of WES and after her death, her husband returned the complement by gifting the Society the beautiful silver WES badge to be the Isabel Hardwich Award, now our highest award, given for outstanding service to WES.
Engineer of the week No.95: The Hon. Lady Katharine Parsons (nee Bethell) JP (1859-16 October 1933)
On the 86th anniversary of her death we remember Katharine, Lady Parsons, militant feminist and founder of the Women’s Engineering Society.
Katharine Parsons was the originating founder of the Women’s Engineering Society. Described by Caroline Haslett as “a militant suffragette and feminist” it was Katharine Parsons who brought the women together who would, in 1919, become the founder members and signatories of the first articles of association to found the society. She, her daughter Rachel and her famous engineering husband, Sir Charles Parsons were lifelong supporters of the Society.
Born in the East Riding of Yorkshire in 1859, she was the youngest of William Froggatt Bethell and Maria Elizabeth Beckett’s 12 children. Her father was a landowner and magistrate. It is most likely that all her education will have been at home as the first proper girls’ schools were only being established when she was a young adult. Like a later WES President, Lady Moir, Katharine Parsons was really an ‘engineer by marriage’. It is reported that as soon as she married Charles Parsons she started to take a detailed interest in his engineering works at Heaton. During the First World War she and her daughter, racel, were much involved in the recruitment, training and welfare of female munitions workers.
In 1919 she became the first female member of the North East Coast Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders and gave a rousing speech about women engineers at their victory celebration after the First World War. She also published a book: “Women’s work in engineering and shipbuilding during the war”. Her interest in women’s voting rights and their war work in engineering led to the idea for the Society which she partly funded from the start. She advertised for a General Secretary to help her set up and run the nascent society, and recruited Caroline Haslett. Together they established and ran the society in its early years and in 1922 Lady Parsons became its president. Although never formally trained or educated as an engineer, her contribution to engineering was widely recognised and she was also admitted to the Worshipful Company of Shipwrights and became a freewoman of the City of London. She died in 1933 and is buried in Kirkwhelpington, Northumberland.
Engineer of the Week No.94: Victoria Alexandrina Drummond MBE (14 October 1894 - 25 December 1978)
In the week of her 125th birthday we remember Victoria Drummond, the first woman ship’s engineer and role model for women at sea, who were not able to follow in her wake until 10 years after she retired.
Victoria Drummond, the first woman to become a ship’s engineer, may have come from the Scottish aristocracy but she had to work very hard in a very tough environment to become a chief engineer. Such privileges as being a goddaughter of Queen Victoria, were by no means sufficient to achieve what she did. Born in Errol in Scotland but also enjoying holidays in England with her grandmother who was an expert wood and ivory turner, Victoria was able to tinker with family cars and her family was able to help her first get an apprenticeship in a garage in Perth and then a full apprenticeship in the Caledon Shipyard in Dundee. By this time, her family had lost most of their wealth and she (and her siblings) had to make their own way in the world for the rest of her life. However, family connections did get her an introduction to one of the directors of the Blue Funnel Line, who was able to arrange for her to get her first sea-going job, as a very junior engineering officer. If this sounds as if she used privilege to get a job not normally available to women, any such privilege was of no further use: she had to show what a competent engineer she was to a very sceptical audience of traditionalist ships’ engineers. Some were supportive but many were openly hostile. Hostility was also embedded at the Board of Trade, who ran the examinations for all seagoing qualifications. The examiners passed her for her 2nd Engineer’s Certificate in 1927, but when she presented herself for her Chief Engineer’s Certificate they failed her more than 30 times as they could not stand the thought of a woman engineer in charge of an engineroom. Eventually she took the equivalent qualification in Panama, where the exam papers were anonymised.
Most of her seagoing career was on non-UK ships, some 18 ships in total. In August 1940, she was serving on a Panamanian ship, the Bonita, in the North Atlantic when Luftwaffe aircraft attacked. As a neutral-flag ship, she was not protected by an Allied convoy. Drummond was on watch when near-miss bombs blew lagging off pipes in the engine room and split the main water service pipe feeding the boilers. She ordered her fireman and greaser to open the fuel injectors and main steam throttle to increase speed and then get out of the engine room in case they needed to abandon ship. The Bonita had never before gone any faster than 9 knots, but Drummond somehow increased speed to 12.5 knots which was enough for the captain to dodge the rest of the bombs dropped and make it to the USA in safety. Drummond was awarded the MBE and the Lloyds Medal for Bravery at Sea.
She retired from the sea in 1962 and lived the rest of her life with her sister in London. She is commemorated by a Victoria Drummond Room at the IMarEST headquarters in London. A very detailed (if somewhat uncritical) biography, The Remarkable Life of Victoria Drummond – Marine Engineer, was written by her niece, Cherry Drummond, the late 16th Baroness Strange. Drummond was a very early member of the Women’s Engineering Society which published various updates on her career in The Woman Engineer.
Engineer of the Week No.93: Doris Mona Whiteside Hirst (Mrs Fairthorne) MA, AFRAeS (13th October 1903 – 16th February 1988)
On her 116th birthday we remember aeronautical engineer, Mona Hirst.
Mona Hirst was another one of the early female engineers who started out as a mathematician. From the modest background of a father who was a primary school teacher in Birmingham, she graduated from the University of Birmingham in 1924 with a Class 1 BA in mathematics. In 1925 she gained an MA in mathematics for her thesis on Asymptotic Expansions.
Her next job was as a lecturer in mathematics at Queens University Belfast (QEB) where she worked from 1926-30, and co-authored a paper in 1928, in The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, on parallel-plate condensers. 1928 was apparently a ‘peak year’ for women’s papers in this physics journal until after the war, with QEB being exceptionally well-represented by women’s papers.
She worked for a while as a Technical Assistant in the Aeronautical Department of Boulton & Paul Ltd, in Norwich, although it is not clear exactly when. The company was closely linked to the Royal Aircraft Establishment Farnborough (RAE) and the Royal Airship Factory Cardington for which they made all the R101’s structural metalwork in 1929, at the time when Hilda Lyon was doing the structural calculations for its transverse framing.
She got a job at the RAE as a Junior Scientific Officer, probably in 1930, as in 1933 she wrote an article about wind tunnel work there, in The Woman Engineer. Unfortunately it is a general article and gives no indication of her own work there. In the same year she married RAE colleague Robert Fairthorne. It is not known if she resigned from her job on marriage, as would have been normal, or if she continued until her son was born in 1941, but she and her husband travelled to mathematics conferences at least until 1936. Mona died in 1988, still living in their house in Farnborough named Kirkmichael after the town of her birth in the Isle of Man.
Engineer of the Week No.92: Dina St Johnston (née Aldrina Nia Vaughan) (20th September 1930 - 1st July 2007)
Today we remember Dina St Johnston, the founder of the UK’s first independent software house.
Aldrina Nia Vaughan was born in south London in 1930 and educated at the Selhurst Grammar School for Girls. Although her parents wanted her to stay on and go to university she chose to leave school at 16 for a job with the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association. She studied part-time at Croydon Polytechnic andthen at Sir John Cass College, gaining an external London University degree in Mathematics. In 1953 she moved to Borehamwood Laboratories of Elliott Brothers (London) Ltd, where she worked in the Theory Division. It had a primitive computer called the Nicholas so she was sent on a short course in programming, at Cambridge, from which she quickly demonstrated a real flair. By 1954 she was responsible for the programming of the Elliott 153 Direction Finding (DF) digital computer for the Admiralty and soon after for programming Elliott’s own payroll computer. Her work was said to have been inventive and structured, but also very accurate, hardly ever requiring ‘de-bugging’.
In 1958 she married the head of the computing department, Andrew St Johnston, and left Elliotts to set up her own software company, Vaughan, recognised at the time as the first such enterprise in the UK. Dina had recognised that as the pioneering computers moved out of the rarified science environments and into general business and industry, hardly anyone in the latter sectors had the skills or the time to develop the skills, to programme their new computers. She employed a few programmers, men with similar backgrounds to her own and her first contracts came via Elliotts, as they were among the first to produce computer hardware for business use. Very significant contracts came to her, such as programming early nuclear power stations, but in 1970 she branched out into hardware, producing her own computer, the 4M, and the company changed its name to Vaughan
Systems and Programming in 1975 to reflect the new area of work. The company was growing fast and Dina was unusual for the time in taking on trainees with no prior experience.
By the 1990s the company’s principal contract was for British Rail, ushering in a new era of real-time Train Describers which track train movements within a Signal box area and display the positions of trains on the main signalling panel, or on screens. In 1996 Vaughan Systems Ltd was sold to Harmon Industries, an American railway signalling company and, in 1999, Dina retired.
The majority of this profile of Dina has been gleaned from an extensive obituary, by Simon Lavington (to whom I am indebted for bringing Dina’s amazing story to my attention), published in The Computer Journal (2009) 52 (3): 378-387, which includes a detailed list of her work.