Engineer of the Week No.68: Gladys Lawson (13th July 1904-September 1998)
Today we remember Gladys Lawson, one of the unsung heroes of the engineering world: a draughtswoman who designed and drew power transformers.
When seeking the stories of women in engineering, we are mostly invited to admire the ‘stars’ of the profession: women who rose to run companies or research departments, women who innovated or patented, women who campaign for the profession. It is as well perhaps to remember that few of us ever rise to such heights, most engineers (of any gender) do not become company managers or take out patents but still enable our technological society to function and the world to go round. For those of our fore-sister who were destined never to be ‘Straight-A’ (or even modest B) students, there is still a role model to offer to today’s girls and young women: there are still excellent careers for you in engineering, even (especially?) if you never get an engineering degree but become a good, reliable technician.
With this in mind here is someone of that sort: a woman who came from the humblest background with little education but rose to responsibility in a major engineering firm’s drawing offices. Lancashire lass Gladys Lawson was born in 1904 into a modest working class family, in which her father was a clerk for the local tram company. She left school at 15 and joined the massive Metropolitan Vickers engineering company in Manchester on its staff. She herself said she was certainly no ‘engineering prdigy’ but was hoping to take commercial training to improve her clerical skills and rise to a secretarial grade. This she achieved and became the secretary to the Chief Engineer of the Transformer Department. At some time in the1920s she fell ill and was out of work for several years. On her return in 1929 she felt unsettled and was delighted to make a change when a vacancy for a Drawing Office Assistant came up.
Initially her work remained partly clerical, ordering spares for existing transformers, but gradually she did simple drawings for clients during the tendering stages. She gained some knowledge of transformers from books and instructional drawings but the coming of World War 2 saw the introduction of proper, formal training for draughtswomen. The company set up the training scheme when it began to be obvious that many of the draughtsmen would be called up for the forces, and included practical training in the Transformer Workshops, alongside draughting classes and theoretical lectures. The practical training included core building, watching many of the machining processes and acting as a Fitter’s Mate in the final assembly.
As a result of this training, Gladys’ work expanded to producing the full manufacturing drawings and design work for power transformers and rectifiers. She was an enthusiastic ambassador for her branch of the engineering professions, speaking and writing articles for The Woman Engineer. She felt that“To see the finished product, in the manufacture of which you have played a part, can be most gratifying.” She remained with Metro-Vicks for her entire career.
Gladys joined The Women’s Engineering Society in 1942 and was soon very active in the Manchester branch. Between 1948 and 1967 she held various honorary posts of auditor, treasurer or secretary and in 1971 the branch gave her a presentation in gratitude for her services to the society. Gladys never married and lived with her parents in Manchester for most of her adult life, but died in 1998 in Norwich.