Imperial College London

A brief history of women engineers in the UK

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International Day of Women and Girls in Science

This is a guest article by Simona Dossi for International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2022.

The UN General Assembly declared February 11th as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science to inspire progress toward gender equality in science and technology. This day prompts reflections on the value of inclusivity in the STEM fields and how it can be improved. This post gives a very brief early history of women participation in engineering in the UK, and highlights 5 important historical engineering contributions by women you might not be familiar with.

Despite the many barriers to entry opportunities in engineering institutions and trade unions in the 19th century, women still managed to patent very significant innovations; some of which are listed at the end of this article. During this time, most women could only participate in engineering through family connections.

During World War I, women entered the workforce to replace the men recruited in the armed forces. When the war ended, the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act of 1919 declared that soldiers were to return to their previous job roles. The Women’s Engineering Society (WES) was founded in the same year, to address this pressure and protect the new inclusion of women in the engineering industry.

In 1924 the Electrical Association for Women was founded with the aim of educating women on electricity through courses and demonstrations and to modernise domestic life with electrical innovation. Through education and activism, the association worked to raise demand for access to electricity; the association published a successful The Electrical Handbook for Women.

The Woman Engineer Journal: Scottish girls making artificial limbs September 1920
The Woman Engineer Journal: Scottish girls making artificial limbs, September 1920

5 Historical Engineering Contributions by Women

  • Hertha Marks Ayrton (1854–1923) was a dedicated suffragette, physicist, mathematician and inventor. Ayrton patented 26 inventions during her lifetime, including the ‘Ayrton anti-gas fan’ used in the WWI trenches to disperse gas. In 1899 Ayrton was the first elected female member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE).
  • Alice H. Parker (1885 - unknown) was living in New Jersey, USA in a time when indoor heating mainly relied on wood burning. Parker addressed this issue by designing the first gas furnace powered by natural gas, and the first heating system which allowed temperature control in different areas through independently monitored burners. In 1919 Parker patented this invention, setting an important precedent.
  • Dr Margaret Fishenden (1889-1977) was a researcher at Imperial College London’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. Dr Fishenden’s pioneering work in Combustion and Heat Transfer contributed to understanding of aircraft gas turbines, flamethrowers, and airfield gas-burners and established Imperial as an innovative institution in this field. The Margaret Fishenden Centenary Memorial Prize is still awarded in Mechanical Engineering for outstanding PhD thesis.
  • Gertrude Lilian Entwisle (1892 –1961) was the first British woman to maintain a professional engineering career until retirement. Entwisle joined Metropolitan-Vickers in 1915 and was allowed to keep her position after the was end because she was not married as the company did not hire married women. Entwisle had a continuous 39 year old career and retired in 1954.
  • Hedy Lamarr (1913-2000) was a film star who also invented a remotely controlled communication system. Using frequency hopping, Lamarr’s invention was used by the U.S military during World War II.

What are your favourite engineering inventions and contributions by women engineers? What do you think about the value of equality and inclusivity in STEM fields? What benefits can it bring, socially and scientifically?

 

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Simona Dossi

Simona Dossi
Department of Mechanical Engineering

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Email: s.dossi20@imperial.ac.uk

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