Engineer of the week No.76: Mrs. Ayyalasomayajula Lalitha BEng, MIEE (27 August 1919-12 October 1979)
On the centenary of her birth we remember India’s first female electrical engineering professional.
Mrs. Ayyalasomayajula Lalitha was India’s first female to become a professional engineer. Born in Chennai (formerly Madras) in 1919, she would follow her father, Pappu Subba Rao, into his profession of electrical engineering. She was fortunate to have such a father, since she found herself as a widow with a daughter at the age of only 22 and he supported her wish to complete her secondary education and go to study engineering at the College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG) where he was a professor. This was against all traditions of what widows should do and of course was a totally unique choice of career for an Indian woman at that time, although 2 other women did join the college to study civil engineering while she was there. Lalitha graduated in electrical engineering in 1943, but there was a further, final, requirement for the degree: practical training. Lalitha completed her one year apprenticeship in Jamalpur Railway Workshop, which was a major repair and overhaul facility.
She then took her first job: as an assistant engineer at the Central Standards Organization of India, in Simla. This enabled her to live with her brother’s family who helped by looking after her young daughter. In 1946 she went to work for her father, assisting him with his research and patents but in 1948 made her final move, to the company for which she would work for the rest of her career: Associated Electrical Industries (AEI). With AEI she became a design engineer specialising in power transmission equipment, including protective gear, substation and generator design. The most significant contract on which she worked was theBhakra Nangal Dam, but she then worked more on contract engineering, as an intermediary between the equipment manufacturers in England and the local installation and servicing engineers, which often required field visits. She continued to work in the same office of AEI, in Kolkota (Calcutta) later taken over by General Electric Company (GEC). In 1953 the Council of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE), London elected her to be an associate member, promoted to full member in 1966. She retired after a 30 year career and died in 1979.
Engineer of the Week No. 75: Kathleen Mary Cook (Mrs D.I.H. Goodwin) AMIMechE, FIBF MIProdEng (25th August 1910 - 1971)
On her 109th birthday we remember Kathleen Cook mechanical engineer, entrepreneur and WES President.
Kathleen Cook was born in London in 1910 and educated at La Convent of the Sainte Union des Sacres Coeurs, North London, followed by a 7 year apprenticeship in 1928 at Hercules Engineering Company, in North London. As far as we can tell she had no formal post-school technical education. Her father, initially a machine shop foreman in the automobile industry, became a director of this small general engineering and press tool company. During the Second World War she and her three brothers ran a factory in Northolt, making gun breech mechanisms. In her spare time she liked to volunteer as a mechanic at Brooklands race track. In 1942 she was appointed director of Hercules Aircraft Construction Co Ltd and in 1945 was a founder member of Universal Equipment Co Ltd. In 1949 she set up Kainder Ltd, to make her own invention, the Kainder Mobile Bed. In 1951 she joined Wilman Engineering Co Ltd, a small manufacturer of making electronic equipment and automatic control units, which was struggling financially and helped rescue it. She remarked that the very hard times in engineering she experienced during the depression when she was just starting her career, stood her in good stead when she took on and turned around various struggling firms in her later career. She married Dennis Goodwin, at this period, who was a director of Brentford Foundries, and George Spicer Ltd. She was a fellow of the Institute of Production Engineering and of the Institution of British Foundrymen (their first female fellow). She died in 1971 after a long illness.
Kathleen joined the Women’s Engineering Society in 1931 and was immediately energetically involved, joining the council in 1936, vice president in 1951 and president in 1955-6. She died in 1971 after a long illness.
Engineer of the Week No.74: Phoebe Sarah Hertha Ayrton (nee Marks) BSc, MIEE (28 April 1854 – 26 August 1923)
96 years ago this week we lost one of the first British women to contribute to engineering and sciences, Hertha Ayrton.
Hertha Ayrton, engineer, physicist, mathematician and inventor, was a pioneer in the application of science to practical engineering problems and was one of the first women to work in electrical engineering in the UK.
Ayrton, born Phoebe Sarah Marks, received an usually excellent education for her time. Her mother, a widowed seamstress, thought that girls needed a good education because they would have harder lives than boys. She studied with an aunt who ran a school in London, and then attended Girton College, Cambridge to read mathematics. Known to her family as Sarah, she changed her name to Hertha, inspired by a Swinburne poem.
After passing the examinations (she wasn’t awarded a degree as Cambridge didn’t give degrees to women at this time), Hertha returned to London to teach. She was awarded a BSc degree from the University of London and took out patents on a line divider, one of numerous inventions she would patent in her lifetime. Hertha also attended classes at Finsbury Technical College, where she met her future husband William Ayrton.
Engineer of the Week No. 73: Mrs May Maple (nee Newby) (8th Aug 1914- 19th August 2012) FIEE, CEng., FRSCA
On the seventh anniversary of her death, we remember electrical power engineer and WES president, May Maple.
Mrs May Maple’s life before she joined the Women’s Engineering Society in 1950 is unclear, but she is likely to have been born in 1914 in Gateshead to Mr & Mrs Albert Newby, and to have married Wiliam Maple in 1939. She started her engineering career as a purchasing officer with the London Transport Board and then moved to Edmundson’s Electricity Corporation. She gained an HNC in Electrical engineering doing a 5-year nightschool course from Action Technical College, whilst at Edmundson’s. In 1948 when the electricity supply industry was nationalised she continued her work in the Contracts department of the British Electricity Authority, gradually being promoted until she was a2nd Assistant engineer in Contracts Department (1953). In 1955 she gained her associateship of the IEE, rising through its membership grades as MIEE and Chartered Engineer (1966), to become an FIEE in 1969. By 1965 she was a Contracts Officer with the CEGB, responsible for all electrical equipment contracts and only woman in this position.
She was active in the Women’s Engineering Society from not long after she joined, initially on the committee of the London branch,getting involved in education outreach to schools and taking on the onerous task of finding paid advertising for The Woman Engineer for over 10 years. In 1970-71 she was the Society’s president and also actively supporting the International Conferences of Women Engineers and Scientists. This involved travelling widely which she continued into her later years. She was made an Honorary Member of WES in 1979 and awarded the society’s highest award, the Isabel Hardwich brooch, in 1991. She died in 2012 and left a legacy to the society in her will.
Engineer of the Week No.72: Caroline Harriet Haslett DBE, JP, Companion IEE (17 August 1895 – 4 January 1957)
Today on her 124th birthday we remember Caroline Haslett, engineer, founding Secretary and President of the Women’s Engineering Society.
Dame Caroline Haslett was arguably the woman who had the most impact on the founding and continued success of the Women’s Engineering Society. Born in Sussex in 1895, her father Robert Haslett was a railway fitter. This perhaps explains why, on leaving school and getting a very junior clerical job with the Cochran Boiler Company in Annan, Scotland, she was so dissatisfied with the job that she asked if she could move to the shopfloor and learn the technical side.
In 1918, she answered an advertisement for a ‘Lady with some experience in engineering works as organizing secretary for a women's engineering society.’This was the Women’s Engineering Society, and she would go on to be the guiding influence of the Society, editing the Journal and becoming President in 1941. She also co-founded the Electrical Association for Women, an organisation formed to reduce the drudgery of women’s everyday lives by encouraging the use of electricity in the home. She edited its journal, the Electrical Age, for 30 years and the 6 editions of Electrical Handbook for Women. When she retired from the EAW the association had 14,000 members, most of them housewives, domestic science teachers, and educationists, organized in 160 branches. It flourished into the 1980s and many women remember their mothers attending its courses, evidenced by one of the distinctive explanatory tea towels.
Engineer of the Week No.71: Professor Margaret Law MBE BSc CEng FIFireE FSFPE (1928 - 27 Aug 2017)
Just two years since her death we remember fire safety engineer, Margaret Law.
Margaret Law was considered by her contemporaries to be a pioneer in the, then new, field of fire engineering. Born and educated in London, she gained her degree in maths and physics from the University of London and got her first job in 1952, at the government’s Fire Research Station in Borehamwood, only 3 years after it was established. Her experimental work featured on the FRS’s research report cover in 1952. During her 20 year association with the FRS (which later became part of the Building Research Establishment) she contributed to 34 Fire Research Notes (reports). The topics ranged from the small, domestic issues of cooker fires in caravans and prefabs, to the Cold War concerns of the potential for nuclear radiation to start fires: “On The Possibility Of Ignition Of Materials By Radiation From Nuclear Explosions”. Her interests were in the effects of materials and structures on fires and how they spread, such as how fire moves through high rise flats with balconies, or the optimum protective coating for structural steelwork.
Engineer of the Week No. 70: Johanna Weber Dr. Rer. Nat. (8 August 1910 – 24 October 2014)
On her 109th birthday we remember aerodynamic engineer Johanna Weber.
Dr Johanna Weber, was one of the foremost aerodynamicists of her generation and contributed significantly to the design of the Concorde and other supersonic swept-wing aircraft.
Born in Düsseldorf, Germany she lost her father in the First World War, making her eligible for financial support, so she could attend a convent school and then go on to university. She graduated Dr. rer. nat. (a first degree but to doctoral level, in natural philosophy or physics) with first-class honours in 1935. Despite teacher training her refusal to join the Nazi Party excluded her from such work but, rather oddly, not from work in armaments. She first worked for the massive Krupp company in Essen as a researcher in ballistics doing mathematical computations using mechanical calculators. In 1939 she moved to Göttingen’s Aerodynamics Research Institute (Aerodynamische Versuchsanstalt Göttingen) to begin a lifelong collaboration with Dietrich Küchemann on aerodynamics which, amongst a mass of other significant publications, led to their seminal book,Aerodynamics of Propulsion.
At the end of the War, senior people from the Royal Aircraft Establishment Farnborough were sent to Germany under Operation Surgeon to survey German aeronautical resources and research. In addition to acquiring many wind tunnels, they also recruited Küchemann and persuaded Weber, probably on the recommendation of Hilda Lyon who was part of the RAE team sent to Germany wrote the report covering their work. They arrived in 1946 and until 1953 were ‘enemy aliens’, on repeat 6-month contracts, until they then were naturalised as UK citizens. From then on Weber lived with the Küchemann family until eventually she bought the house next to theirs.
Her initial work at RAE was in Frances Bradfield’s Low Speed Wind Tunnels division, on air intake cowlings for jet engines, on which she co-authored a series of papers. The work for which she is more remembered today was on wing design, for which she showed that a thin delta wing could generate sufficient lift to for take-off and landing for supersonic planes, and was implemented in the iconic Concordes. Her design work was also involved in wing shape for both the VC10 airliner and the more recent Airbus A300B. She retired from the RAE in 1975 at the grade of Senior Principal Scientific Officer, but still did some consultancy with them for a while, whilst also pursuing personal interests in geology and psychology. She never married and helped financially support members of her family who remained in Germany.
For a more detailed technical review of her work, see John Green’s obituary for the Royal Aeronautical Society: https://www.aerosociety.com/news/obituary-dr-johanna-weber/
Engineer of the week No.69: Elizabeth Jane Smith (3 October 1889-?)
Today we remember Elizabeth Smith, the first woman to study engineering in a Scottish University.
Elizabeth Smith was the first woman to study engineering in Scotland. Her family background is a bit unclear but her mother may have been a single parent as they lived with her mother’s parents and siblings and there is no mention of a father in the household. Her grandfather was a forester and lived in the Forester’s Cottage in Currie, Midlothian. Elizabeth’s first school was Currie primary, then James Gillespie’s for 4 years from the age of 12, and finally the Broughton Junior Student Centrewhich was a kind of college bridging school to university.At the centre she gained passes in English, Mathematics (Higher), Latin, Dynamics, French, and Italian, sufficient to take her to university. She started her studies at the University of Edinburgh, at age of 20, in the academic year 1909-10, initially on an Arts degree.She then changed course to pursue a Pure Science degree in the Faculty of Science for the following three academic years. As she came from a very humble household, her mother working as a low-paid shop assistant, it is not clear how her education was funded, probably by various scholarships but neither her schools nor the university have any records on this matter.
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.