Engineer of the Week No.124: Blanche Coules Thornycroft AINA (23rd December 1873 - 1951)
On her 146th birthday, we remember naval architect Blanche Thornycroft.
Blanche Thornycroft was one of the earliest women to have a significant role in engineering in Britain, and the first woman to be elected to an Associate Membership of the Institution of Naval Architects. For a fuller article, by Keith Harcourt, see http://journal.sciencemuseum.ac.uk/browse/issue-10/blanche-thornycroft/ , from which the information for this EOTW profile has come. Thanks also for the pictures from The Classic Boat Museum, https://www.classicboatmuseum.com/
Born into a privileged position as daughter of John Thornycroft, shipbuilder, there is no record that Blanche had any formal school or university education in the maths and sciences which she would obviously have needed for her future work. Since she was born in an era when ‘learning by doing’, with a professional engineer as Master, her immersion in the family business as an informal ‘pupil’ would not have been as unusual a way into engineering as it became 40 years later.
The Thornycroft family home at Bembridge on the Isle of Wight, included facilities to explore the design of ships. An apparently decorative garden pond included sophisticated measuring equipment so that it could be used as a testing tank. Ship models were towed through the water at a controlled velocity, and measuring instruments were in a nearby building. One of the best images of Blanche is of her holding one of the discs from the recording device, made by the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company, which recorded the performance of the model boat in the ‘Lily Pond’ tank. These discs were covered in soot which was scratched off to record the behaviour of the test vessel, in much the same way as early phonograph records were made. She worked with her father and brother on a variety of naval ships’ and powercraft designs, including a design for a coastal motor torpedo-boat and the behaviour of wire hawsers during WW1. In 1919 the AGM of Institution of Naval Architects elected to her to be its first female Associate Member, although she seems not to have been active in the Institution. The last recorded date when she was doing her naval architecture work was in 1935, when she was working on a ‘special launch’ for the RAF. She never married but her recreational interest in sailing, and membership of the local sailing club continued until her death in 1951.