Engineer of the Week No. 18 Frances Beatrice “FB” Bradfield OBE, BA, FRAeS (1895 - 26th February 1967), windtunnel expert, on the 52nd anniversary of her death.
Yorkshirewoman Frances Bradfield was the daughter of a Wesleyan minister and was able to go to Newnham College, Cambridge, graduating in maths in 1917 before Cambridge, long before it confered actual degrees on women. Frances Bradfield was known widely as “FB”. She was the first to apply to the RAE when, at the end of WW1, it specifically advertised for women technical staff, and became one of the first women directly recruited to the Royal Aircraft Establishment Farnborough in 1918, where she would have a career in the use of wind tunnels, being promoted to be Head of Small Tunnels from 1934, as an “individual merit Senior Principal Science Officer”. She gained a reputation as a quick and reliable researcher but was not very handy with tools herself. She specialised in aerodynamics and stability, working with Dr G.P. Douglas for most of their respective careers.Her work was so exceptional that in 1935 she was put onto the male pay grade and RAE directors had to fight to keep her on such preferential salaries throughout her career.
She wrote or co-wrote 130 reports, 37 Memoranda of the Aeronautical Research Council, and 40 Technical Notes, covering mainly wind tunnel techniques but also aircraft controls, slots, flaps and aerfoils. Her main contribution being to establish that wind tunnel research was technically valid and reliable, by perfecting techniques for their use and creating essential operating manuals. She worked with all the key scientists in the field at the time and was considered an excellent team player, who was excellent at bringing on younger scientists. Sir John Charnley, arriving during WW2 as a very young new engineering graduate (who went on to become the RAE’s director) remembered her running a demanding department but forever trying to put young scientists into groups within which she thought romance might blossom.
Worked on Hawker jet fighters after WW2 and retired 1955.She was awarded the Royal AeronauticalSociety Bronze Medal in 1948 (note that no woman has ever received their silver or gold medals).In a paper she gave to the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1939, she suggested that“We have lost our early optimism that we could measure everything, but we have also lost our later pessimism that we could measure nothing correctly."
Although she never married, she was very sociable, had a keen interest in the arts, and was very involved in raising money for children's charities. She was close friends with another eminent woman at RAE – Hilda Lyon - as well as Norah Irving and Muriel Barker Glauert, also maths graduates who were early female pioneers at the RAE. As well as her many friends in the UK she visited NASA in Virginia and became firm friends with NASA's first female technical employee, Pearl Young, who also came to the UK and visited FB. Prior to her retirement in 1955 she personally designed a new house for herself in Swanage which was planned to enable her to live as independently as possible as increasing physical infirmity took hold. She died in Poole in 1967.