As the Christian period of Lent approaches we remember Engineer of the Week No. 19, Hypatia ( c.350-370 to 414CE), who was killed during Lenten riots.
Was Hypatia the first woman engineer? Perhaps not as we would define an engineer, but the mathematician still has an interesting story.
Whilst this is often a problem for histories of women even from the 20th century, we have to concede that actual facts supporting any claims to Hypatia having been an engineer are thin on the ground. Her birth dates range from c.350-370CE but it is a fact that her father was Theon (c.335–c.405CE), an Alexandrian mathematician and philosopher, known for his edition of The Elements of Euclid. It is fairly sure that she was a pagan in the era when Christianity was rising. She was a teacher, philosopher and even political advisor. Evidence for this last activity comes from the only person who actually knew her and from whom any writing survives: Synesius of Cyrene (c.373–probably 413), who was one of her Christian students in about 393 CE.
There are no known texts that can be directly attributed to her, although some writers credit her with following in her father’s footsteps with some commentaries on mathematical writings by Apollonius and Diophantus, and perhaps editing Ptolemaeus’ Handy Tables. However these are not considered original works, and point to relatively minorcontributions to mathematical knowledge, albeit extremely rare from a woman in the clasical era. There is no evidence to substantiate her making astrolabes, nor that she invented a hydrometer. A recent Hollywood rendition of her life (Agora) attributes wholly fictional achievements in astronomy and instrument-making. Her death at the hands of a mob during Lent in 414CE may havebeen due to her gender or her faith, but the descriptions are apparently very similar to other ‘cleansing’ ritual deaths of that period so reports of the details of her murder may have been ‘decorated’ to suit the mood of the times.
So, although some History of Women in Engineering web pages select her as the first named female with engineering interests, these do not hold much factual strength. She is perhaps more similar to that other glamourous ‘poster girl’ in STEM history: Ada Lovelace. Ada may have contributed to the concept of algorithms and programming for calculating machines but was not an engineer either.