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.