Issue 14                                                                                                                                      
May 2017
"Cherchez la femme!" wrote Alexandre Dumas, author of The Count of Monte Cristo and other 19th Century classics. This issue of our newsletter takes up the theme as - inspired by upcoming International Women In Engineering Day on 23rd June - we search for the women in engineering (history) up to the present day.
From a day to a lifetime...

How are you planning to spend 23rd June, the day that's been internationally designated for the celebration and encouragement of women in the engineering professions?

If you can get to Birmingham, the IET (Institution of Engineering & Techonology) is hosting a one-day conference and workshop based on its ongoing "9% Is Not Enough!" social media campaign, launched last year.  The figure refers to the percentage of UK engineers who are female - the lowest in Europe or the US. The Women's Engineering Society presents a useful roundup of the relevant statistics.

Sign up for the conference, male engineers, and get on the social media campaign: you're 91% of the profession, so it can hardly change without you!

The event would surely have been welcomed by Caroline Haslett, first secretary of the Women's Engineering Society in 1919 and, five years later, co-founder of the Electrical Association of Women (since subsumed through many mergers into today's IET). On engineering timelines you can read a concise history of her impressive achievements - at least in part inspired by a life-long hatred of housework - as an advocate of women in the profession and in the home.
Caroline Haslett, founding member of both the Women's Engineering Society and the Electrical Association for Women, sought to harness the power of electricity to reduce the burden of housework in women's lives. She clearly had a bent for modern marketing techniques, as demonstrated by the title of her 1949 educational manual, above right. Made you look, didn't it? Even though it's about vacuuming...

photos : copyright IET Archives via engineering timelines
Birmingham also hosts the annual Big Bang Fair for the UK's Young Scientists & Engineers. It's in March, so if you are eligible age-wise (young at heart is not enough!), you've got plenty of time to design your entry for the 2018 Tomorrow's Engineers EEP Robotics Challenge. It's one of the many fun challenges and activities given profile via the Women's Engineering Society's "Engineering Girls" page. If you ARE a schoolchild - or know one - better get teacher to apply soon - the closing date for applications is in July.

Meanwhile, over at London's Science Museum, a redesign means that the four-tonne mirror from the 19th Century Rosse telescope may now be seen in the "Making the Modern World" gallery on the ground floor.  It's included here because of the role played by the owner's wife in its development - read the Science Museum's blog entry on The Remarkable Mary Rosse to find out more.
Mary Rosse, wife of William Parsons, Third Earl of Rosse, is best known for her photography, such as her photograph of "The Great Rosse Telescope" at Birr Castle, Ireland (above). But she also took a keen interest in engineering and is reputed to have worked with her husband on his refinements to telescope design. You can see the 4-tonne mirror from the telescope in London's Science Museum, or visit the original telescope in the grounds of Birr Castle and Science Centre in Ireland.

Photograph: Mary Rosse, copyright The Science Museum
Quite apart from her own experiments in design, a quick breeze through Mary Rosse's family tree reveals a remarkable engineering dynasty: her youngest son is Charles Algernon Parsons, engineer and inventor of the modern compound steam turbine used to generate electricity. In 1996, more than 100 years after its invention in 1884, his steam turbine was still responsible for the majority of electrical power production in the USA.

Parsons died a rich man, leaving his wealth to his sole surviving child, his daughter Rachel Parsons.  She and her mother, Katharine, were founders of the Women's Engineering Society, with Rachel as its first president. Despite prosperity and achievements, her extraordinary life was not a particularly happy one, as reports of her death by manslaughter reveal - read one recent account here.

From the Steamy Parsons to the Lighthouse Stevensons, keeping it in the family is quite an engineering tradition. So, famously, it was for the Brunels: Marc and his son, Isambard Kingdom.

On 15th June, at the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe, London, you can find out more about the family team - including a mysterious and less-often mentioned "Brunel in petticoats"... see the Engineering Club's website for details.
What's this? The Ladies who Launch? No, it's (from left to right) John Scott Russell, Henry Wakefield and Isambard Kingdom Brunel at the launch of the SS 'Great Eastern' - and engineering timelines trusts that the great IK would not object to wearing petticoats just this once, to publicize the lack of any available images of his talented sister, Sophie... Book yourself a free place at Bryn Bird's Engineering Club lecture on 15th June at the Brunel Museum for more about the extraordinary family and their work together.

photo: via alchetron

...can build a battleship."  So - reputedly - said American literary icon, Mark Twain, who may not have had in mind Brunel's achievements in the field of steam-propulsion.

But hairpins aside, did they build a bridge?
Brunel's Clifton Suspension Bridge under construction. A method of piling invented by family friend, Sarah Guppy, has led to speculation about the degree of her involvement in his design - read on below for links to the full story.

Photograph: copyright
Mary Rosse and Sophie Brunel are far from alone in the lack of substantive records about women's contribution to engineering history. How much of this is due absence of credit in addition to cultural and practical impediments, it is impossible to know - but historians must beware of attempting to right possible injustices where there is insufficient evidence to do so.

A good example may be found in the case of Sarah Guppy, an undoubtedly inventive and active member of the Brunel's social and professional circle in Bristol. A family blog lists some of her achievements, which include the patent for a method of using piling in the construction of suspension bridges.

Thomas Telford, in advance of designing his suspension bridge over the Menai Strait, heard of her invention and wrote to her for permission to investigate it. This contact and her subsequent involvement with the Brunels has led to speculation that she had a hand in the design of Clifton Suspension Bridge. Her case is taken up by the intriguing history website, which puts it more forcefully.

Taking up the challenge, the Clifton Bridge's own website contains an authoritative article by subject experts Julia Elton and Adrian Andrews (writer of the official "History of the Clifton Suspension Bridge"), in which they argue that such claims overreach the facts.

And in doing so, perhaps her supporters do Guppy a disservice for, as Elton and Andrews conclude, "Sarah Guppy was an extraordinarily talented, creative, highly intelligent and charismatic woman whose remarkable inventions rightly deserve our attention and recognition."
If there's anyone out there who hasn't yet encountered the millions-and-millions-selling Fidget Spinner - here is one, in plain-but-fetching red (metallic, glow-in-the-dark, rainbow-coloured etc are all available). But there's no medium that can adequately translate the visceral joy of spinning it between finger and thumb... The original patent for the stress-relieving toy was originally filed by US inventor Catherine Hettinger - as you can read below.
Given that the engineering professions per se were largely closed to women, we must broaden our search for evidence of their involvement.  It has been pointed out that, historically, women frequently preferred to identify themselves as "inventors" than engineers.

One such case is Mary Anderson, widely acknowledged as inventor of the windshield wiper for road vehicles. You can read her story on the Fun Facts page of, itself an excellent web resource for aspiring young female engineers (check out school kids' inventions among the results of its 2017 essay competition). Anderson's patent expired in 1920, having been rejected by car manufacturers as impractical... yet only two years later, Cadillac became the first company to fit the now-ubiquitous wiper as standard.
There's something similar in the tale of Catherine Hettinger, currently lauded (but not financially rewarded) by many sources as the inventor of the fidget spinner (pictured above). For lack of US$400., she let her patent lapse in 2005 after Hasbro - having tested it - decided not to go into production. Counterclaims, however, suggest that the fidget spinner as we know it today bears only a passing resemblance to Hettinger's patent.
Interest in early 19th Century architect Sarah Losh was boosted in 2012 with the publication of a novel, The Pinecone, by Jenny Uglow, based on her life. Her Grade II* Listed St Mary's Church at Wreay featured in Historic England's 2014 project highlighting the works of women architects.

photo : copyright St Mary's Church, Wreay
The science of structural engineering may have begun with the pyramids but the profession as such assuredly did not. For centuries the responsibility to build a building that would stay upright fell (sorry!) between the architect/ designer on one hand and on the other - far more heavily! - on the master builder and his men.

March 2017 brought the glad news that Australia (for example) has just appointed its very first female masterbuilder - a welcome development, but one that warns us not to get our hopes up about finding women masterbuilders in the past.

However, Linda Clarke and Christine Wall at the University of Westminster have produced some excellent material on women working in the trades, historically.  If you're interested you can download their article, Omitted from History: Women in the Building Trades here.  Even the tables of statistics make fascinating reading.

Engineering timelines, therefore, sidesteps the dearth of female civil and structural engineers by pointing you in the direction of women architects, as celebrated by Historic England in a special project to mark International Women's Day in 2014.

One of the buildings featured is the unique 1842 construction, St Mary's in Wreay, Cumbria, designed by architect Sarah Losh, pictured above. Losh also paid for its construction and took a hand in producing the decorative features.

Interest in Losh's work increased in 2012 when locally-born writer, Jenny Uglow, published a novel - The Pinecone - based on her life. For lots of photographic detail and a nice personal account of a visit to the church, inspired by Uglow's novel, try this blog entry from anonymous blogger and literature fan, "Barbara".
We haven't seen a Mars Rover in engineering timelines newsletter since last June - and that's a lack we abhor!  Luckily, the image of the Curiosity Rover on a mock-up of Mars, above, is relevant, thanks to the work of Siemens Controls Engineer and Queen Elizabeth Prize ambassador, Emma Goulding.  If you're wondering what Curiosity is actually up to these days, NASA's designated webpage enables you to track her (yes, her!) movements in almost real-time.

photo : copyright NASA via popular
For blasting a profession's profile sky-high, there's still nothing quite like a successful Hollywood movie... with a nonfiction book tie-in that tops the New York Times bestseller list... and a version for young readers with an initial print-run of 250,000...

The reference is, of course, to Hidden Figures, the December 2016 release celebrating the lives and achievements of three female African-American mathematicians - Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson - and their work for the NASA space programme in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The film's success has been roundly welcomed by the many organizations and countless individuals working to encourage more girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) - see the contemporary Twitter response from the US for some anecdotal fun, or Tracey Welson-Rossman's think piece in for a rallying cry.

A common theme, which underlies many of the stories in this issue, is "Why had we not heard of these women before?" And, as Naomi Climer, first female president in the history of the IET, writes in a Huffington Post blog entry, how many more such figures are out there?

Let's hope some are discovered as a result of the IET's Young Woman Engineer of the Year Award (the deadline for applications is 7th July).

The Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering - established in 2013 and, at £1million, the largest prize for engineering in the world - is also doing its bit with a great roster of ambassadors (could YOU be one?) and outreach activities throughout the year... including special screenings of Hidden Figures for schoolgirl audiences.

It may be too late to change history, but we have the future. With all the work that's going on, surely that disappointing 9% figure is set to start rising soon.
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