The Long Read: Discovering the Victorian Engineer Henrietta Vansittart

Emily Rees


In the third video of the Electrifying Women: 5 Key themes series, we talked about how women invented and innovated before significant new opportunities opened up for them as engineers in the first half of the 20th century.

We highlighted the career of Hertha Ayrton, who was elected the first female member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1899 for solving problems in the performance of arc lights.[1] While Ayrton’s name is commemorated in prizes, plaques, street names and buildings, most women’s careers in engineering have often been overlooked or erased. In fact, Ayrton was not even the first British woman in engineering who held patents.[2]

This blog post focuses on the life and work of Henrietta Vansittart (1833-1883) who held the patent for the Lowe-Vansittart propeller. This propeller was widely used in the Royal Navy’s ships and was awarded a first class diploma at the Kensington exhibition in 1871. A model of the propeller is held by the Science Museum Group.

US Patent for Lowe Vansittart screw propeller, available here.

Vansittart’s career raises various questions, just two of which I explore below.

First, since formal opportunities for women to enter engineering in the 19th century were so scarce: how did Vansittart find a pathway into the field? We shall see that, for Vansittart, as with other women in the period, familial connections to engineering were key. Secondly, Vansittart’s life story, and how it has been written about, raise queries about what constitute historical ‘facts’ and in turn about the reliability of the sources we use.

Since little academic attention has been paid to Vansittart, most of the information about her is only accessible through blog posts and Wikipedia. In such accounts, several details of her life are unclear, especially her tragic untimely death in an asylum in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1883. It is apparent that more research is needed to understand Henrietta Vansittart’s life as an engineer.

Routes into engineering

In our second video in the 5 Key Themes series, we explore how early women engineers had to be resourceful to forge their careers given the barriers they faced in accessing education and membership of professional institutions and trade unions. Though challenges remained, during the first few decades of the 20th century, opportunities grew for women to take more ‘formal’ routes into engineering, via training courses and university degrees.

A further key development was the outbreak of World War One in 1914 which led to thousands of women working in engineering jobs in factories and companies across the UK, replacing an absent male workforce. In 1919, the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) was formed to maintain these prospects when the male engineers returned. This led an increased number of women working in engineering; in the 20th century there are numerous examples of women who had long, highly successful careers in engineering, such as Margaret Partridge, Verena Holmes, Hilda Lyon and Beatrice Shilling.

How did women find careers in engineering before the 20th century? For engineers like Ayrton and Vansittart, many of these routes did not exist or the obstacles were far greater. Ayrton did undertake a university degree – studying Mathematics at Cambridge and the University of London – which is part of why her career was exceptional for the time.[3]

Hertha Ayrton (c) Girton College, University of Cambridge; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Indeed, before the 20th century it was more common for familial connections to supply women with a route into engineering.  For several founding members of WES their connection to engineering was formed through marriage, notably Lady Katharine Parsons, and fellow WES founder Lady Margaret Moir, who coined the term ‘engineer-by-marriage’.[4]

Lady Moir’s Presidential Address from 1929 in The Woman Engineer, held by IET archives.

Returning to Henrietta Vansittart, we find that we need to look at her family connections to explain how she became an engineer and inventor. Her father, James Lowe, was the inventor and patentee of a screw propeller in 1838. Vansittart most likely learned her engineering knowledge through working with her father on his inventions, even though these experiments led him to insolvency, thus reducing his family to poverty.[5]

Even after her marriage in 1855 to Frederick Vansittart, she continued to work with her father, and she was present at the testing of the propeller on the HMS Bullfinch in 1877.[6] After her father was killed in a street accident in in 1866, Vansittart took over his work on the screw propeller, obtaining patent no. 2877 for the Lowe-Vansittart propeller in 1868 in the UK (patented the following year in the USA).[7]

The influence of Henrietta Vansittart’s family on her work bears similarities to another naval engineer who was born in the Victorian era – Blanche Thornycroft. Recent research has revealed the significant role that Thornycroft played in the family’s engineering business based on the Isle of Wight.[8] Like Vansittart, her training in engineering was through working with her father. Other notable examples of women whose engineering training came through family companies are Rachel Parsons[9] and Dorothée Pullinger (who is the subject of a current interdisciplinary research project).

For nearly two decades Vansittart had carved a successful career for herself as an engineer and inventor. As already mentioned, the patented Lowe-Vansittart screw propeller was awarded a first-class diploma at the 1871 Kensington Exhibition. In 1876, she presented a paper on the Lowe Vansittart propeller at the Association of Foreman Engineers and Draughtsman, the first woman to do so. It was on a visit to the North East Coast Exhibition of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineers in Tynemouth in 1882 that she took ill and was then committed to the Tyne City lunatic asylum, where she died in 1883.[10]

With no evidence of having had a formal education, her father’s work, and his willingness to involve his daughter in it, provided the training Vansittart needed to become an independent engineer and inventor. Her status as a married woman did not appear to prevent her from practising and there is little evidence to suggest her husband was in anyway involved in her work or that he tried to stop it. As with other women from the period, familial collaboration was the vital route into engineering.

Historical ‘fact’: a question of sources

As highlighted earlier, unlike similar counterparts, Vansittart has not been the subject of any extensive academic research. It is only possible to speculate as to why this is. She has, however, featured in various blog posts and is frequently raised as an interesting case study for forgotten or unknown historical figures, for example this blog from the Open University.

This lack of academic attention may be, in part, due to the more ‘colourful’ aspects of her life. Other than the unusual career path she took – practising as an engineer when few women did so – her private life held many intrigues, ending with her death in a Newcastle asylum. It appears to have been well-known that she was having an affair with the MP Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who left both Vansittart and her husband money in his will.[11]

Unlike Blanche Thornycroft, who lived a reserved life in the Isle of Wight,[12] Vansittart is likely to have been part of London ‘Society’ even if she was not allowed to be member of any of London’s learned societies. Much more research needs to be done to find out more about Vansittart’s life as a working female engineer, wife and lover.

I happened to come across Henrietta Vansittart when trying to find out more about British women that were practising as engineers before 1919. In the absence of academic papers and without the means (yet) to travel to archives to see physical copies of documents, I have relied on online sources, including blogs and online archive repositories.

While beginning to draft this blog, I became troubled by the lack of ‘verifiable’ information I could find in the online resources about Vansittart. By verifiable, I mean links to archival material, links to primary sources or peer-reviewed academic articles. I was conscious of not simply recycling the same material, as the more something is repeated, the more it can appear to become ‘fact’.

Interestingly, questions were raised at the recent training session which the Electrifying Women project ran in London, about the extent to which we can trust blog posts and online sources, mirroring my own doubts researching the life of Henrietta Vansittart. Historian of women in engineering, Nina Baker, raised the point that in one of the online blogs on Vansittart the wrong image is used for her[13]. I have found that, for a while, different birth dates were posted on different blogs. Her birthplace, too, is different on different pages.

Similar questions about the ‘trustworthiness’ of online secondary sources, like blog posts, were asked at the recent wikithon, which the project ran in Leeds, where there was a discussion with the session facilitator – volunteer editor Nigel Pepper – about the extent to which we can trust Wikipedia entries. Nigel explained that Wikipedia freely admits that its online encyclopaedia is only as good as its secondary sources. Wikipedia discourages editors from using primary material, instead asking editors to use reliable, published secondary sources. Users are always encouraged to check the citations used in an article themselves before relying on them.

When there is little published material, how can we assess the reliability of online material? In the case of researching Vansittart, I found that much of the online material comes from the same few places. Her Wikipedia entry, for example, is largely based on a few blog posts, which have a varying degree of reliable sources attached (thus not meeting the criteria laid out by Wikipedia in this instance).

A more extensive, well-researched blog can be found on the Epsom and Ewell local history website, which has a range of sources on the Lowe and Vansittart families. However, the verifiability of the research conducted is still hard to ascertain.

A peer-reviewed academic article provides a layer of verifiability that a blog post does not have (though arguably it is not a fool-proof system) and raises other kinds of questions about who can access what information, when so many academic journals are still behind paywalls.

More ‘official’ sources of information about Vansittart include her entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB), though this is another source behind a paywall. There are two articles in Women’s Engineering Society journal, which is freely accessible online, The Woman Engineer, in volume 3 and volume 13, both of which explore the history of Vansittart’s life (though the historical veracity of The Woman Engineer can be questioned).[14]

Extract from the The Woman Engineer feature on Henrietta Vansittart (with a yet to be verified image) from 1983, held by IET archives.

In terms of primary material, Vansittart’s own publication The History of the Lowe Vansittart Propeller (1882) can be accessed in certain libraries. There are references to Vansittart and her propeller in The Times, including two separate entries in 1869[15] (the British Newspaper Archive is also behind a paywall). There is an image of the record for the US patent for the Lowe Vansittart patent available online and a model of the Lowe Vansittart propeller is held by the Science Museum collections.

The ODNB entry references letters in the Bulwer Lytton archive as evidence for the affair between him and Vansittart, though there is clearly more research needed here, for which the family archives at the National Archives might be helpful. The reason for Lytton leaving money to both Vansittart and her husband, for example, is yet to be excavated. Interestingly, while the affair is mentioned in Vansittart’s ODNB entry, it is not in Lytton’s (other affairs of his are mentioned).

Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer Lytton c. 1831, 1st Baron Lytton, by Henry William Pickersgill, source: National Portrait Gallery.

In this blog, I have proceeded with caution about stating too clearly the ‘facts’ of Vansittart’s life, favouring sources like the ODNB entry on her life. Facts, though, can only tell us so much to begin with and I would argue that what is needed now is thorough research into Vansittart’s daily life, to establish more about the way she lived, her place in society, and how she managed to negotiate this while working on developing her engineering project, the screw propeller.


Exploring the life of Henrietta Vansittart, and how it was thus far been recorded, has raised several pertinent points about how women found their place in engineering in the 19th century, and about the challenges of researching, and verifying, information about these women.

Firstly, this blog explored how Vansittart can be viewed as part of a wider trend of women in engineering from the period; an example of women who found their way into the field through family connections, rather than (or in addition to) more ‘formal’ educational routes. Alongside examples like Blanche Thornycroft, Dorothée Pullinger and Rachel Parsons (not to mention the engineers-by-marriage like Margaret Moir and Katharine Parsons), we can build an argument that family and kinship were crucial to the foundations of women in engineering and the founding of WES (a longer article on this is in development).

Secondly, this blog has looked at the ways in which finding out about women’s working lives can be challenging and brings to light questions about the sources we use and how we can trust them.

There’s also a more human dimension: in seeking out the histories of women in engineering, we find innovation – patents, inventions, productive collaborations – but we also find out other things – the messiness of human lives. We find this distilled in the case of Henrietta Vansittart. While we may seek to draw divisions between work and personal life (as is so often the case on Wikipedia entries), these lines are not so easily created, for women especially. In cases such as Henrietta Vansittart, where working life began through family life, such lines seem hard to construct. As this blog has discussed, the full scope of research into her work and life is yet to be done, yet her aliveness still comes to the fore.

Sources used

Links to blog posts on Henrietta Vansittart

Secondary sources

Primary sources

[1] Bruton, Elizabeth (2018). “The life and material culture of Hertha Ayrton”. Science Museum Group Journal. 10 (10).

[2] Before the Victorian era, we have examples such as Sarah Guppy (1770-1852) who held patents for bridge design. Like Vansittart, more research could be done on her life and engineering work.

[3] To read more about Ayrton’s life and career, see Bruton, Elizabeth (2018).

[4] Moir’s presidential address delivered at Bedford College for Women, London, July 26th 1929 where she used the term ‘engineer-by-marriage’ is reproduced in The Woman Engineer, vol.2, 1929, pp.369-72.

[5] O’Mahoney, B., & Stearn, R.  (2012, January 05). Vansittart [née Lowe], Henrietta (1833–1883), engineer. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 21 Jan. 2020, from here.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] K. Harcourt and R. Edwards, (2018) ‘Engineering and the family in business: Blanche Coules Thornycroft, naval architecture and engineering design’, Science Museum Group Journal, 10.

[9] Heald, Henrietta (2019) Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines, London: Unbound.

[10] O’Mahoney, B., & Stearn, R (2012).

[11] Ibid.

[12] K. Harcourt and R. Edwards (2018).

[13] This blog post’s web page has potentially been compromised so I have not included it

[14] ‘A Victorian Woman’s Contribution to Marine Engineering’, The Woman Engineer, Vol.3 no. 13, December 1932 (accessed here on 21.01.20: ). B.M.E. O’Mahoney, ‘Henrietta Vansittart – Britain’s First Woman Engineer?’ vol. 13 no. 4, April 1983 (accessed here on 27.01.20: )

[15] “Naval And Military Intelligence.” Times, 8 Jan. 1869, p. 7. The Times Digital Archive. [Accessed 7 Jan. 2020]; Our Malta correspondent. “Naval And Military Intelligence.” Times, 24 Dec. 1869, p. 10. The Times Digital Archive, [Accessed 7 Jan. 2020].

We need you! Volunteering for the Electrifying Women project

The Electrifying Women 5 Key Themes series

Emily Rees

The first phase of the Electrifying Women project, which began in the Summer of 2019, to coincide with the Women’s Engineering Society (WES)’s centenary, is now drawing to a close. Over the past seven months, we have run events, workshops and talks across the country introducing audiences to the history of women in engineering, but we don’t want our work to end here.

One of the main aims of the project – to introduce more people to the history of women in engineering and thereby encourage more girls and women to find their place in the industry – still requires work. There are still many more audiences to reach and more stories to tell.

This is why we need you! We want to provide the resources that you might need to deliver your own events, or to write a blog, or do your own research into the history of women in engineering.

To bring in the New Year, we ran a training session at the Dana Centre in the Science Museum in London to do exactly this. We offered three introductory sessions on research, blogging and presenting.

We were fortunate that volunteer engineering historian, Nina Baker (author of the Magnificent Women blog amongst many other things), gave her time to present on researching the history of women in engineering. Nina has spent many years finding out about women engineers, tracing their stories, and digging up sources. Many of these stories were previously unknown and can now help us contribute to Wikipedia pages for these women. Based on her own experiences, Nina has provided us with a comprehensive list of sources that you can use to delve into this fascinating and rich history, which is available on our resources page.

Many of those who research the history of women in engineering have been amazed by the number of women who keep emerging and there’s more research to be done, especially for women working in the field before the founding of WES in 1919. Beyond individual women, you might want to research particular companies, regions, cities or educational institutions.  

We have recently identified five key themes that could be explored more through research: collaboration; resourcefulness; innovation; activism; networking. Watch our videos on each theme to learn more. A highly useful starting point for this kind of research is always The Woman Engineer, the Women’s Engineering Society quarterly journal publication, now digitised and available to search on the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) archives website. A simple search for a name, company or place can lead to all kinds of fascinating results.

Digitised volumes of The Women Engineer

If you were interested in researching for the project, you might also want to consider writing a blog for the Electrifying Women blog page. Blogs are a great place to write up research findings, pose new questions, or simply reflect. As the editor of the blog, I led the blogging session, offering some ideas for producing a blog post for the project. This might be an exploration of a particular woman in engineering, or a group of women, or you might want to answer a certain question. You could look at a source you find interesting, maybe from the IET archives, or review a play, or book that relates to women in STEM. You’ll find more ideas on our resources page which includes a blogging style guide.

At the training event, we put out a call for more guest bloggers to contribute. We were thrilled to see a huge amount of interest in this, with several new ideas put forward for guest posts. The Electrifying Women project is open to blog posts about anything that links back to the history of women in engineering, and in any country at any time. We want a greater diversity of voices writing on the subject so please get in touch ( if you have any ideas.

Finally, project lead Graeme Gooday offered some of his insights into presenting and working with different audiences. On the project’s resources page you will find Graeme’s suggestions for running a presentation and how to approach working with audiences of different ages and backgrounds. We intend to provide further resources on our website so that anyone could run their own workshop, talk or event on the history of women in engineering. In due course, there will be resources packs for giving a talk and running your own creative writing workshop. Indeed, if you had any suggestions for what we could provide on our resources page, please let us know.

Current figures suggest that only 12% of engineers in Britain are women. Clearly more work needs to be done to change this, though there are several inspiring initiatives making great strides forward, such as the WISE campaign. We believe that sharing the remarkable history of women in engineering can play a role in making this change, providing a legacy which shows the integral role women have always played in the field. For this, we need your help, whether it is through researching, blogging or presenting (or other ways that you can), to keep sharing the history.

Further events

On Saturday 18th January 2020, we will be running a Wikithon in Leeds, if you want to learn how to edit Wikipedia, sign up here.

We will be running a second training session in Leeds on the 26th February 2020, sign up here.

‘SHE’: performing the lives of engineering women

Elizabeth Bruton

On a cold and wet November evening, we entered the Stage@Leeds performing space for SHE, a public performance by final-year theatre and performance students at the University of Leeds.  The enticing poster showed a young woman with a printed circuit board projected onto her face.

Over a period of eight weeks in October and November 2019, and inspired by presentation on the Electrifying Women project by Graeme Gooday, these students devised, wrote, and performed SHE as a play with music. This promised to teach us about the ‘bold and brilliant’ women who fought for ‘rights and equality’ so that we may all grow, learn, prosper and thrive.  Supervised by Dr George Rodosthenous, the students undertook research for SHE in the Feminist Archive North holdings of Women in Science and Engineering to find stories of UK and US women who had  innovated in technical and scientific fields.

Poster for the production of SHE at the University of Leeds 21-23 November 2019

Upon entering the minimalist space before the performance begin, we met a young girl on a swing at centre stage. This was Yasmin Rapley playing a young version of British pioneer pilot Amy Johnson; the stage was soon brought to life by the multi-character cast and an immersive use of props.  Throughout the performance, we were presented with engaging dramatic vignettes from the lives of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – with a simple musical score and soundtrack effectively grounding the emotional content of the play.

Interwoven throughout the first half were the life and achievements of Amy Johnson, British aviator and long-distance record breaker.  We began with her early family life and her father’s fish market in Hull and then university studies and the female community surrounding and supporting her at Sheffield University. Soon we moved on to her pioneering long-distance aviation successes, including becoming the first woman to fly solo from London to Australia; her marriage to fellow long-distance pilot Jim Mollison only eight hours after they first met; and her tragic and disputed death after ditching in the Thames in January 1941.

A young Amy Johnson contemplating her future (still from the production of SHE at the University of Leeds, more photographs here)

Briefer vignettes of other women were interwoven with the central narrative of Johnson’s life. The first of these was Grace Hopper, who in her World War Two navy service did early pioneering work in computer language, later becoming a leading American computer scientist and  United States Navy rear admiral. Her wartime service as one of first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer was vividly brought to life as was her key role as the inventor of the first compiler for a computer programming language. Her innovation of giving computers recognizably human speech, “Hello World”, now a common test phrase in computing, was beautifully projected onto the stage floor.

In a more humorous interlude, we met the unnamed – actually Frenchwoman Herminie Cadolle, considered inventor of the modern brassiere, also known as the bra.  Invention and innovation comes in all shapes and sizes it seems!

We were also introduced to American astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt and her work as a “computer” at Harvard College Observatory  – although translated to Oxford in SHE – which led her to discover the relation between the luminosity and the period of Cepheid variable stars.  Leavitt’s deafness was also effectively dramatised – Leavitt was shown to turn down her hearing aid at anyone’s mention of when the limitations of what women could do, especially in the field of astronomy.

Next, we met Emily Roebling and her engineering contributions to construction of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge in New York when her husband and chief engineer Washington Roebling was bedridden for a decade with compression sickness caused by his work on the project.  The upbeat conclusion to the first half cheerfully turned some of the audience into airline passenger to show the EasyJet Amy Johnson Initiative, which encourages more women to train as pilots.

Emily Roebling managing the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge during her spouse’s infirmity (still from the production of SHE at the University of Leeds, more photographs here)

The second half opened with a depiction of young women starting their unorthodox top secret work in codebreaking at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. We see stories of romance amid the interception of enemy wireless messages by members of the Women’s Royal Navy Service (WRENS) during the Second World War. Later in the play we return to these women in later life sharing their wry and candid observations about Bletchley life when at last they could talk publicly about their role in shortening that war.

Next up was a dance interlude showing the experimental theatrical lighting work of American actress and dancer Loie Fuller with her patented stage effects that used the chemistry of stained glass. Following on from this, we met another actress, innovator and patent holder Hedy Lamarr. For a long time, Austrian-American actress Lamarr was celebrated for her on-screen skills and natural beauty, but with her inventive skills ignored by the military establishment in World War 2. Lamarr, we learn, made key contributions to frequency hopping in collaboration with modernist composer George Antheil, used to prevent torpedo jamming in the 1960s . These later formed the basis for our present-day wifi, GPS, and Bluetooth communication systems.

The last two women’s contributions to science, technology, engineering and mathematics spanned the everyday and theoretical. The story of Josephine Cochrane, inventor of the dishwasher, reveals both her great determination and the financial exploitation of her labour-saving device for women workers by male corporate executives who could not at first believe that its inventor was not a male Joe Cochrane. Finally we see perhaps the best known female scientist Marie Curie and the originality of her research on radioactivity in the early twentieth century.  Nobel prize winner Curie is also the subject of a play currently running in New York City exploring her friendship with pioneering British electrical engineer Hertha Ayrton.

The enthusiasm and skill of the entire cast and crew along with the simple, minimal and beautiful staging of SHE and the impeccable research made the play a real joy. It was an eye-opening portrayal of the often hidden past of women’s achievements in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, with an inspirational message about their potential future contributions too. 

Feedback collected from the audience afterwards was very positive:

  • “SHE was an impeccable production. Clever and inspiring storylines combined with a gripping set and lighting design – this is a must watch.”
  • “SHE was an emotional rollercoaster. Emotions fluctuated throughout the show leaving you exhilarated and uplifted. The actors took on multiple roles and moved with ease and professionalism into these different personas.”
  • “SHE was a relevant and current piece of theatre, bringing issues that have plagued society over the years to the forefront. Passionate and emotionally inspired performances by the cast thrust these contentious themes before the audience, leaving you awestruck.”


Laura Annie Willson visits the Migrant Access Project + (with a little help from Hannah Stone)

Hannah Stone

Laura Annie Willson (1877-1942), a textile worker from Halifax, founding member of the Women’s Engineering Society and MBE

Emily Rees blogged a while ago about the creative writing workshops I’ve been running on the history of women in engineering under the auspices of Electrifying Women, and we’re excited that people who attended these at the Industrial Museum in Armley and the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics are beginning to submit the writing inspired by these sessions. You can see some of this work on our blog. In the new year we will compile a small anthology of these writings; watch this space for more news of that.

Last week saw another wonderful encounter within the local community when I was the guest of the Migrant Access Project + (MAP+), a group supported by Touchstone charity in Armley, and facilitated by Zainab Abdelkader, herself a migrant from Egypt, who is working with the charity while completing training to convert her medical qualifications into British standard ones so she can again work as a doctor.

Each week a group of women who have migrated to Britain meet as part of MAP+ to share ideas, join in activities and support each other in their journey towards fuller integration into the local community. The range of activities they engage in is broad and reflective of the skills and interests the women have; it seems from the tempting offerings on the table this time that cooking delicious and wholesome food is a common event – thank you very much to Zaid for bringing that in! 

Our focus when I visited was sharing stories about women’s lives, through history (looking at the lives of women who were involved in engineering such as Laura Annie Willson, who came from a working class background in Halifax, Yorkshire) and in the countries where my hosts had originated from. They represented many different faiths, nations and work experiences, and we chatted about the very practical concerns women would have if trying to work outside the home in engineering; needing to make meals for your family was a big priority, so the account of Alice Gordon’s cook getting in a strop because her rolling pin had been commandeered for use in an experiment elicited much sympathy. 

Tahira talked with relish about making things with her hands (and the room we met in was adorned with evidence of craftwork made by the group), and we discussed how being involved in engineering might even be as the person who mended the sewing machines in a factory, that ‘engineering’ of various sorts was close to us at all times. We had a discussion about how many men were needed to change a light bulb and suspected you might need fewer women because they are so good at working cooperatively!

We wondered if putting together flatpack furniture was an example of engineering? If so, there were some expert technicians in the room. There was a general feeling that women brought many practical skills to the world of work, and that often domestic demands got in the way, and that despite many advances we were still some way from fully equal opportunities for women in jobs involving STEM skills.

We talked about the additional challenges faced by women in previous generations and what we would have done if we’d had the vote earlier, and how being obliged to wear confining clothes was a disadvantage when it came to new inventions such as the velocipede. We discussed how the introduction of electricity brought some so-called labour-saving devices but also a greater expectation that homes would be immaculate – and housewives likewise free from blemishes (some of us certainly felt that candle or lamp light was more forgiving to the wrinkles…).

This inspired Lucian to write the following poem, which she kindly gave us permission to put on the blog:     

You were not here
Though we have lights now
Oil lamps were better.
Now you are here, so you give us
Not only light but help us with tasks.
You are a good master and a bad master.
You are a good master because
You make things easier for us,
Cooking, washing, now we have the IT age.
Without you it would not happen!
But you are a bad master, too.
If one cable goes wrong with you
You cause death, you cause maiming.
So, why are you here?

A poem from Lucian Conteh, from Migrant Access Project Plus (Touchstone Charity, Leeds), November 2019

About the author

Hannah Stone is an academic and writer. An alumna of Leeds University, she now teaches English Literature and Religious Studies for the Open University alongside freelance work as a poet. She has published three volumes of poetry, collaborates with composers and convenes the poets/composers forum for Leeds Lieder Festival as well as monthly events at Leeds Library and in Horsforth.

A Model Engineer: Cherry Hill

Geoff Theasby

Cherry Hill on the cover of Model Engineer in 1968

In the field of model engineering, women remain under-represented, so the long and successful career of top modeller Cherry Hill, who has won many awards and accolades for her work, deserves to be highlighted. Especially because, despite her reputation within the model engineering community, Cherry Hill is almost unknown outside the community.

Over the course of her career, Cherry Hill has produced a number of intricate scale models, has won nine gold medals at the Model Engineering Exhibitions, and has been awarded the top prize – the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award – also nine times.  Of late, her models have been of the more obscure traction machinery, even in one case, an engine that was never built, indeed, as a contemporary drawing shows, could not work as intended. 

Several years are spent on preparation, research and drawing plans, followed by further years making the model, to the extent of machining her own miniature nuts and bolts.

A well illustrated book by David Carpenter, (Robert Hale, 2014) details her life in model making, from growing up in Malvern, Worcs, the child of an agricultural engineer. Beginning with a Sunderland flying boat during WWII, which won a 2nd prize, conventional traction engines featured in her early work, followed later by more original examples.

Whilst at University, Cherry built a ‘special’ car based on a much modified 1926 Humber 8 hp chassis. Registered in 1952, it was soon replaced by an MG TA. Trying to patent a design for electric scissors, she found that a Frenchman had pre-empted her in 1918.

Cherry was more successful with a carburettor balancer, marketed as the Crypton Synchro-check for eight years in the 1950s, and still in demand by enthusiasts.

In 1953, a visit was paid to a model engineering component retailer for some small items, but a set of Stuart Turner No 9 castings accompanied her home, with the results we now know. The finished model later won a Bronze Medal at the 1964 Exhibition and was given to the Society of Model & Experimental Engineers’ HQ, in London, where it can still be seen. This was followed by an Allchin Royal Chester traction engine, at 1:16 scale. There are plenty to compare it with, as it is the most popular traction engine model ever made.

In her research, Cherry discovered the original full size machine near Tonbridge, and spent the next seven years in manufacture, winning a silver medal at the same exhibition. Two years later it was runner up in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award competition. In 1978, the more unusual types began to appear, beginning with Taylor’s Steam Elephant, patented in 1860. Construction revealed that the design had several shortcomings, nevertheless, it worked on compressed air, winning a gold medal in 1984.

Perhaps the most unusual model is the Blackburn agricultural engine of 1857. It is doubtful if it would have worked as designed, where the engine and boiler were inside a large drum acting as a road wheel, driving it via a ring gear around the inside. How the exhaust was directed past the spokes of this wheel is not explained, and Cherry had to speculate on a solution, designing a working system. This model won a Gold Medal in 2005 and the D of E Award in 2007. We must not forget that in 1857, traction engines were in their infancy, and many ideas both practical and impractical appeared before the overall general design with which we are all familiar emerged.    

Research for a new model begins with browsing the pages of Victorian magazines, like The Engineer, founded in 1856, and the Patent Office archives, selecting the more unusual examples. Thousands of hours are then spent drawing and planning before the engineering work proper begins.     

Cherry first came to the attention of Model Engineer magazine in 1968, appearing on the front cover with two of her models, a traction engine and a 1905 self-propelled fire engine. One reader saw the picture and vowed to marry her and did. 

Cherry Hill was made MBE in 2000 for services to model engineering, has twice won the Sir Henry Royce Trophy for the Pursuit of Excellence, and in 2004, elected a Companion of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and an Honorary member of the Society of Model & Experimental Engineers.

About the author

Geoff Theasby is a writer specialising in technical subjects and a radio amateur. He writes a regular “Club News” column for Model Engineer magazine, and has frequently contributed to other publications, including Practical Wireless and the Radio Society of Great Britain’s magazine, Radcom. He also has a workshop where he makes small models and electronic devices and tries out various design ideas.

Creative Writing: Examples from our Workshops

Following our first two creative writing sessions, at Armley Mills in Leeds and the LSE Women’s Library in London, run by creative writing specialist, Hannah Stone, here are some examples of the kinds of work that was created at the workshops. The output at both workshops was fantastic; participants responded with empathy, flair and originality to the stories of past women in engineering.

 Decorative Electricity
You see my dear, it is my pleasure
to wring from iron these drops of golden light,
like honey from the hive in summer,
saved up to serve a feast on winter nights.
The curlicues and cormorants weave
graceful coils and drapes, enhance
a dining room, a writing desk, breathe
life into a hidden gloomy niche.
You see that dragon over there?
His head hangs low and in his metal
mouth he holds a ball of shimmering air.
A Cupid swathed with loincloth sheds
sun-drenched rays onto my dinner guests.
Moreover, should your safety be a fear,
please rest assured, compared to gas
or candles, there is no hazard here.  
It is the future. Now, if you’re agreeable,
I’ll switch it off. See how the spark
is quenched at once - we’re frugal people
in this house and also (you’ll remark)
we marry science with exquisite art.
Liz McPherson

My dearest Richard
These past few days, I have found myself more and more frustrated by the lack of progress on our joint project and the fact that I cannot represent both of us in public, at meetings or ask questions of colleagues that you work with because I am a woman and your wife.
I feel so excited about our work and the potential it has to change peoples lives but I find myself racing ahead in my thoughts and realise that you are not racing along side me.
I know you are committed to the project but I worry that you don’t have the same sense of urgency about it as I do. I sometimes feel like I could burst with the ideas I have in my head and the desire to translate the ideas into concrete answers to the problems and challenges that the project poses.
I have spent hours asking myself why we are advancing at different speeds and I can only conclude that it’s because you are a man and I am a woman and you don’t feel the need to change the world as quickly or as urgently as I do.
I feel imprisoned by my sex and I am acutely aware of the many things I cannot access and cannot do and I am sure that you do not feel this level of constant anxiety or concern, as you are more at ease about your place in society as a man… A man who has the right to think and do and act without fear of judgement or obstruction.
Of course, my dearest I am not suggesting that you are trying to block or put obstacles in the way of the project but I believe that you are simply not as keen to move as fast as I am and that your thoughts are not in turmoil as are mine.
I am sure you will be surprised when you read this as you probably feel that we are working together in harmony, but little do you realise that my mind cannot be calmed and my desire to change things has become unbearable to me.
This is why I must go to London where the suffragettes are mobilising for a demonstration outside of parliament. I need to express myself, my desires, share my concerns with other women and feel a sense of togetherness and solidarity and find my voice.
The project can surely wait a few days and maybe this letter will give you an insight into my thoughts and give you time to think about the next steps that we can take to advance our project.
As I write I suddenly feel an overwhelming sense of liberation, just from sharing this with you and expressing my feelings but it’s not enough… I must go to London!
It’s as if there is a fire inside me that has been stoked by coal. The news of the suffragettes has given me hope that I will no longer have to walk in the shadows whilst you are able to walk in the sunlight.
I beg you to read this, knowing that it is coming from a place of love and good intention. Try to imagine yourself walking in my shoes and accept that the progress of our project and the progress in society and the struggle for women’s rights are so closely linked as to be impossible to separate.
If I cannot be free to use my brain, take an active part in our work and in society as a whole, I cannot be a happy and productive partner and a fulfilled and loving wife.
Yours Hilda



(A play)

Ms. Haslett, a young woman of 18, stands in a large abandoned dusty barn over tables assembled in disarray. Three, other women, clad in large dresses fuss over some drawings. Ms. Haslett is unrolling some copper wires when the large barn doors suddenly open. Sunlight pours in. A tall dark handsome suitor stands in the doorway. He is wearing a tailored suit.

The women quickly cover their drawing plans with clothes and sewing material.

Ms. Haslett sits down promptly, putting both her hands on her lap. She does not hide the copper wires which are on the table next to her. The suitor stares at them with mock fancy.

SUITOR: It’s complicated, isn’t it.

Ms. Haslett stares at the coppers.

MS. H: Oh, but is it?

SUITOR: It is not as simple as tossing a couple carrots and onions in a pot to make a broth.

Ms. Haslett only notices the basket at Suitors feet. A basket of vegetables he has brought for her as a gift – a gift to make him dinner so as to judge if she is a suitable cook. Cooking; a suitable skill for a wife to have.

Ms. Haslett prods her wires as if in thought.

MS. H: Go on.

SUITOR: Go on, what?

MS. H: (staring at him intently) Go on, toss a couple carrots and onions in a pot. Go on, make a broth.

The other women snigger. The sniggering makes the Suitor angry. He approaches, angrily kicking the vegetable basket. The vegetables roll askew.

SUITOR: Oh, nasty woman, must you be so snide? (he snatches some clothes from the table) Will you ask me to wear an apron and a duster too?

Ms. Haslett takes hold of the cloth in his hand.

MS.H: As far as I can remember, I did not emerge from my mother’s bowels wearing aprons or holding dusters. I fancy to imagine she wasn’t wearing one at my birthing nor was yours.

SUITOR: Must we bring our mothers into this? (a stray chicken enters the scene) Your imagination is a wild goose.

The other women rush to stop a school of chickens from entering the barn. The chickens cause a fracas. Ms. H and Suitor ignore all this.

MS. H: Indeed, the goose so wild it said nay when the farmer tried to slit its throat, pluck its feather or give it a warm coddle over the spitfire.

Suitor is stunned. He stands back. The disarray from the chicken and the women chasing them has exposed Ms. Hasletts and her friends secret lab.

MS. H: Now, if you will excuse me. My imagination has only spun a little something to ease the domestic drudgery imposed upon my sex.

SUITOR: (staring at the soiled vegetables) And the broth?

MS. H: And the broth? What about it?

SUITOR: It need be made.

Suitor clutches his stomach.

MS. H: See. When the stomach groans for something hot, it does not consider whether it is a female or a male stomach. Indeed, there is no such thing. Nor will this invention at my fingertips.

SUITOR: (alarmed) You are a wild goose.

MS.H: That I am. And no, you cannot corner me, undress me, or turn me over at the spitfire.

Suitor turns to leave, upset.

SUITOR: You are a problem!

MS.H: Problems have no sex, I’m glad.

Stray chickens suddenly rain down on Suitor. He runs away, upset. The ladies have a good laugh and get on with their work.

Hadassah Louis

Dawn’s breaking, dreams fading,
Run quick to the station, to take papa his tea.
Intent amid the steam,
Voices rise above the din, wheels and whistles clamouring.
I would join you in a flash, stoke the engine, make the dash –
North as fast as wheels can fly, choo choo…! But sigh, I must turn my steps away, for
Girls do not drive, or so they say.
Dusk falling, day fading,
Returning to the station,
Engine’s whistle, today’s last stop,
All passengers, please disembark, and go, pass on the spark,
Miles we’ve covered to reach this mark; track, toil and years led us here, my dears to say,
See, girls do drive, now lead the way!
Sarah Holloway

Pitch for a screenplay
« The lasting tooth » (working title)
by Barbara Muller


Amelia Rose has taken part to the greatest engineering adventures of her time. Along with the management of her household – her husband was supportive, but there were limits –, she beat the gender gap and worked alongside great female colleagues and male counterparts. Having specialized as a TFE – a Tooth Fairy engineer –, Amelia Rose revolutionized the industry: she developed new protocoles to electrically and chemically treat milk teeth, creating means and ways to put to use the overlooked commodity. Thanks to Amelia Rose, milk teeth were not only harvested from under children’s pillows, but also treated to produce material such as emotional intelligence or resilience to be redistributed to the needy. 

Now that Amelia Rose is retired, she is brooding: the « senior » role is as ill-adjusted to her personality as the « housewife » role had been. She had beaten the gender gap. She would now beat the age gap.

« The lasting tooth » (working title) will tell about how Amelia Rose took up the gauntlet then, and takes it again now. This new enterprise leads her to find a use to another neglected and even despised commodity: the fallen teeth of elderly people. The movie will show not only how the challenge is a scientific and engineering one, but how it is also a social one: once again, Amelia Rose must deal with the reaction of her family, entourage and of society at large. Allies and foes come in all sizes and shapes, and from ever surprising stocks. 

Cast (provisional)

Amelia Rose               Tilda Swinton

Voice over                  Tom Hiddleston

Paul, husband              Steve Buscemi

Sophie, daughter #1    Amy Adams

Maid                            Frances McDormand

Best friend                  Maggie Gyllenhaal

« The lasting tooth » (working title)
First scene


House is Victorian, overlooking a raging ocean; sky is low and very tempestuous.

A woman in her early seventies, thin and with a stiff upper lip, is sitting in one of the large red armchairs of the reading room. She is surrounded by books and 2D and 3D models of submarines, engines, brains and teeth. On the mantelpiece lie framed photographs showing her in her lab coat with various people and teams, smiling, shaking hands or focused on a blueprint. 

The woman doesn’t pay attention to her surrounding but gazes at the horizon. Her right index finger endlessly and mindlessly follows the curve of her teacup.

Tom Hiddleston:

Amelia Rose was grumpy. She peeked at a book lying on the adjacent console and then back to the ocean. Teresa, the maid, kept leaving here and there books about knitting, cooking and gardening. Teresa had always disapproved of Amelia Rose’s professional choices. At least, she did it openly whereas other members of the staff and of her family communicated their views through sighs and looks. Her daughter Sophie – an ill-suited name after all – had become the queen of looks. Amelia Rose didn’t care. She never had. Admittedly, she couldn’t cook, knit or keep a plant alive. She could, though, draw the blueprint of any sort of machine, engine or robot, she could run a factory – and she had –, repair a submarine or a toaster.

The view was breath-taking. Paul would want to go for a walk. She had always preferred the smell of chemicals, the greasy atmosphere of shop floor and the light of neons – what a blessed invention, really – to a  « walk ».

One of her teeth was loose, had been for quite some time now. She could feel it move when she pushed it with the tip of her tongue. How ironic.

Her mood darkened.

She had worked with splendid minds such as Amy Johnson, Hilda Lyon or Annie Wilson. She had flown alongside Amelia Earhart. She had had a splendid career and; as a Tooth Fairy engineer, she had had a leading role in the teeth industry. She had designed the machines and formulas to transform the harvested children’s teeth into emotional energy and into resilience, at a time when milk teeth were merely gathered and swiftly disposed of, and when women rarely approached a machine and  only to dust it. Amelia Rose had first devised the means to redistribute the precious result of the process to the needy. She had done it all right under the nose of the patronizing lords, sirs and gentlemen, and while raising five children and attending to a household. She had been a great and happy engineer.

And she didn’t want it to be over. Hence the grumpiness. She had been retired for two weeks – the toasts and speeches of her retirement party were still echoing – and she despised it.

She had beaten the gender gap. She would beat the laws of old age. She would give Sophie, and the others, a good reason to give her looks for another decade or two. 

Oh, she had an idea alright. Old teeth. As Tooth Fairy engineer, she had done miracles with milk teeth. On the other side of life though, teeth were disregarded. As were old people; as she, as a woman, had been. But Amelia Rose knew better; she was sure there was much to be gained from this raw material.

Barbara Muller

That Idiot Finch

Where the fuck is my brush?
Is it possible, he asked, to rewrite history
with a feminist agenda?
The patents not under my name
But they’ll comment on my masculine brain
Once I’m dead

Is that her voice? Do we give recourse to
Bad History by adding linguistic flair for a
Matter of effect?

She’s there again finding ways to engineer
Me back to her son, the
Inglorious inventor, the
Patented engineer

It is sometimes difficult, sometimes easy
To imagine the panache of her privilege
I want her to be loud
I want her to be the septic cackle of a bulb
First installed

He’s there again, in the stables, where he should be
But somehow I am uneasy
He watches me like I am a liquid flowing for his easy drinking
He knows what I do with my estranged husband’s circuitry
Worse than adultery to this fucktard
He strokes my horse
Takes her soft mouth close to his tweed breast
Where the fuck is my brush?

I lose her there
Become uneasy with my inventing
Because I have no eye for details, only become
Subsumed in what they call the Bigger Picture
I want her to be loud
I don’t want her to be drowned in my own anguish

I am Leda, not about to be taken by the swan
(It is always good to include a classical touch)
I am Leda, separated, frowned upon
At some point the pitchforks will come for me
But for now I’m simply tinkering, in velvet,
Waiting for the sparks to dance.


Mrs Gordon’s diary 1885

March 1885

Well thank heavens Jim has got a limited company to support his work on the new dynamo.

I don’t have to placate the cook any more – she always used to cry blue murder each time he ‘borrowed’ her utensils. Mind you, it doesn’t stop him talking incessantly about the Paddington station Lighting project at dinner: I’ve become quite expert in all the plans now that I’ve  heard so much about it. I’ve even given him a few suggestions which he’s actually taken up – not that he notices let alone remembers he got them from me

April 1885

Did my regular weekly visit to the engineering works to Jim and his workmen. He has been teasing me mercilessly for likening his Brobdingnagian dynamos to mechanical but sentient daughters. He forgets how he himself talks about these same machines fondly and proudly with the feminine pronoun! What with engineering wives like me supporting everything night and day, and the machines being cast as females too, perhaps engineering isn’t so completely a man’s world after all!

July 1885

Hurrah The new Paddington lighting station is now working in an orderly fashion. And all our – and I say ‘our’ advisedly – dynamos are working perfectly. Strong, stable and resilient – no wonder!

October 1885

James now is looking for new customers for the company. Households and homes, as well as businesses. Something will have to be done about the horrific glare of the electric light! Most men – Jim included seem to love the garish brightness of the new incandescent lamps. I hate t as do all my lady friends. What to do?

February 1886

Have been trying to think of how to win my lady friends over to the electric light. I hear that Lady Thomson has been using coloured silk to shade the lights in her home. I tried this myself and it works beautifully to soften that evil glare. I have decided to write a book on this for the benefit of all. I think I will call it ‘Decorative Electricity’… might take me a few years to write though!


‘Making the internet less sexist’: the Electrifying Women Wikithon at LSE Women’s Library

Emily Rees

Wikipedia is a global resource, used by billions of users, but of the English language pages, only 16.8% of the biography pages are about women. For example, until last month, Lady Katharine Parsons – who co-founded and served as president for the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), advocated for women’s rights and their role in engineering, helped manage the engineering firm set up by her husband, engineer Charles Parsons – did not have her own Wikipedia page, only a stub on her daughter’s, Rachel Parsons

Like many other women of note in history, Katharine Parsons had not found her way onto the online encyclopaedia, which relies on volunteers to create and edit pages. Wikipedia are aware of this problem and have set up the initiative Women in Red, which aims to level out this imbalance by running edit-a-thons or Wikithons as they are also known. These are run by experienced Wikimedians (experts in editing and using Wikipedia) who teach volunteers how to create and edit pages for notable women. 

On the 21 September 2019, the WES centenary projectElectrifying Women and Heritage Open Days came together to run such an event – the Electrifying Women Wikithon at the LSE Women’s Library in London. This was a follow-on from an earlier Wikithon run by WES at the library in March.  

On what turned out to be a beautiful, late September Saturday, nearly 20 members of the public volunteered their time to come along to the event to learn how to edit Wikipedia and ‘make the internet less sexist’ (as the badges received at the end put it). The session was led by Wellcome Trust Wikimedian Dr Alice White, whose expertise and enthusiasm fuelled the day. 

Dr Alice White leading the Wikithon

It was surprising how easy the process of editing is, operating much like basic word processing software that we are all mostly familiar using. More challenging is finding adequate references to support any claims being made on the page, for which extra research can sometimes be required. Sources held by the LSE women’s Library proved useful for this. Citations are the cornerstone of Wikipedia; the more citations, the more reliable the information on the pages becomes. A Wikipedia page is only as good as its editors and their sources.

The participants in the Wikithon were provided with a list of women that they might want to edit or create a page for. Participants were attracted to a range of different women, depending on their own interests, which was fascinating to hear about. Some participants came from a science or engineering background and wanted to add more about the women working in their particular field, some just wanted to learn more about Wikipedia and others came wanting to work on particular women, whose careers they had taken a keen interest in.

The output from the four-hour session was remarkable: 11 articles were created; 38 articles edited; 9.73 thousand words and 107 new references added. Other than Katharine Parsons, new pages were added for food manufacturer and businesswoman Ella Hudson Gasking, German refugee and engineer Ira Rischowski, India’s first female engineer Ayyalasomayajula Lalitha, among others. 

Screenshot of Katharine Parson’s Wikipedia entry which was created at the Electrifying Women Wikithon on 21 September

In fact, Ira Rischowski’s new Wikipedia page was built upon research that Electrifying Women had compiled for our blog post about her story, which relied on material held in the Women’s Library. Her personal papers, 1938-1988, are held as part of the Records of the Women’s Engineering Society collection, more information here.

The creation of new pages, and the editing of existing ones, not only means that these women are now visible on one of the most accessible and searched online knowledge resources on the internet, but also that they can be linked to the WES centenary trail map. All these women now have a pin on the map, which shows the global spread of WES members; from the Wikithon there are new pins in India and Germany. 

Feedback for the event was hugely positive, demonstrating a thirst for more events, with particular comment on Alice’s one to one teaching and her expertise. Both Electrifying Women and the WES centenary project plan more Wikithons relating to women in engineering, so keep an eye out for information on these. 

There are still many women who do not have pages, or whose pages need attention, so the efforts must continue, but this event was testament to how much a group of enthusiastic volunteers can get done in only a few hours to demystify the role that women have played, not only in engineering, but in history. 

From fact to fantasy: reflections on creatively writing the history of women in engineering

Emily Rees

Photograph from the workshop (courtesy of Helen Close)

Our Electrifying Women project was set up to look for new ways to share a better understanding of women’s long participation in engineering. While women’s voices from the past can be very difficult to recover, we can still use our creative skills to fill the gaps in the documentary story so that we can imagine what it was like to be a past female engineer.

On Sunday 15th September we held our first creative writing workshop, at the Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills. Part of the national Heritage Open Days scheme the event was  run by poet and creative writing specialist, Hannah Stone.

Over a two-hour period, the writers were given a series of prompts from Hannah and asked to create a fictional character based on some of the real women who worked in engineering from the Victorian era onwards. The responses from the writers in the workshop were brilliant; we were taken aback by the enthusiasm, confidence and imagination shown in the work produced on the day. 

From only brief prompts, a diverse set of responses emerged, creating a range of stories, in various literary forms. There were diary entries of female engineers, poems (including an acrostic one!), letters to husbands about joining the suffragette movement, and prose fiction. The real stories of women engineers formed the basis of many out these – women like pilot Amy Johnson and Halifax-born suffragette and housebuilder Laura Annie Willson particularly seemed to pique the writers’ interests – but the fact soon gave way to fantasy, with the creation of daughters, international correspondence, and even some time travelling bickering between an engineering wife and husband.

From these, multiple themes came to the fore about the experiences of being a woman in engineering. There were love stories, frustrations, female friendship, familial relationships, the day to day life of working in engineering but also managing a household, as well questions around heritage and dynasty. Much of the writing had a strong feminist core running through it, making comparisons between historical experiences of being a woman and contemporary ones. 

Alice Gordon’s book Decorative Electricity proved to be a particularly stirring prompt, making us wonder about the imagery used to illustrate electricity when it was first being domesticated. One writer was considering writing a poem about electricity and nature based on this. Alice’s own autobiographical experiences in engineering were also the inspiration for some fictionalized diary entries of the many challenges facing the ‘engineer-by-marriage’.

A section from Alice Gordon’s book Decorative Electricity, which was discussed at the workshop

Considering the workshop was only two hours long, this impressive output is testimony to Hannah’s design of the workshop and her ability to inspire her workshop writers. It is also testimony to the openness and willing of the writers to engage with these stories and use their own creative drive to interpret and bring to life stories that have frequently been overlooked. They should be very proud of what they produced. 

No doubt the setting helped too; the workshop took place in a room in the middle of the heritage site of Armley Mills. Being surrounded by the architecture of Leeds’s industrial history and the machines and tools which powered it certainly aided the imaginative processes. We are very grateful to Armley Mills Industrial Museum for lending us the space. 

The Electrifying Women project has much to learn from these creative outputs, which help us to think in new and diverse ways about the histories we are researching. We are currently looking into ways in which we might be able to publish some of this work, online through this blog and also in print. 

We will be running a second creative writing workshop with Hannah Stone at the LSE Women’s Library in London on Saturday 5th October 2-4pm, book here.

Ira Rischowski: refugee engineer

Graeme Gooday

How did one of Germany’s very first female engineers end up working in Britain during World War 2? The little-known story of Ira Rischowski is certainly not one of espionage. Hers is instead a drama of escape from Nazi persecution and narrowing opportunities until she was able to join the UK’s Women’s Engineering Society (WES).

Our previous blog post showed that by 1935 WES attracted members outside Britain, and in fact from several continents. Ira Rischowski’s case shows how a talented migrant could swiftly rise to a position of eminence on WES’s Council. Her personal papers at the LSE Women’s Library and in the Imperial War Museum’s (IWM) oral history collection give us an opportunity to reconstruct some aspects at least of her extraordinary life.

Photograph of Ira Rischowski (courtesy of Ceryl Evans) 

Unlike in Britain, an aspiring engineer in early twentieth-century Germany needed formal qualifications to enter the profession, and by then many technical universities accepted women to study engineering. In 1919, after six months’ experience in a repair shop for agricultural equipment (arranged through her father’s industrial connections), Ira Rischowski enrolled as the first ever female engineering student at the Technical University in Darmstadt.

The chaotic situation in Germany after World War 1 created major employment challenges for the first women to qualify as engineers. One exception was Melitta Schiller, an aeronautical engineer who graduated from the Technical University of Munich in 1927. She secured prestigious work as an experimental aviation researcher until Nazi officials learned of her grandfather’s Jewish heritage. Later Schiller served in wartime as a Luftwaffe test pilot.

In 1928, after further workshop training at the electrical company Siemens-Schuckert, the newly- qualified Ira Rischowski found employment. Two years later she became a member of Germany’s central engineering institution: the Verein Deutscher Ingenieure (VDI). By 1933 there were as many as 618 female mechanics and engineers registered in Germany, and accordingly the VDI set up its own special women’s section. But Rischowski refused to join this women’s group since the VDI had by then become completely Nazified.    

Soon her own Jewish parentage and socialist politics became the cause of persecution by the Nazi regime. So Rischowski moved with her family to Czechoslovakia. Yet even in Prague, conditions were difficult so in 1936 she escaped to the UK under the only visa scheme permitted to her: to work as a domestic servant. While working unhappily in various menial roles, Rischowski was invited by Caroline Haslett to attend some meetings of the Women’s Engineering Society, and became an Associate Member of WES in November 1939. For WES’s 21st anniversary she wrote a piece on Women Engineers in Germany for the WES house journal The Woman Engineer.

The first of two pieces written by Ira Rischowski for The Woman Engineer, this from a March 1940 issue that included pieces from women engineers in Eire and the USA. 

When World War 2 broke out in September that year, as a German citizen, Rischowski’s position once again became precarious. Deemed to be an enemy alien after an unfortunate misunderstanding with the UK’s Home Office, Ira spent a year in the Rushen internment camp for women on the Isle of Man. Resilient as ever, she flourished in such adversity, leading many activities, but was yet again denied opportunities to practise engineering.

Once returned to civilian life in 1942, she worked for two years as a draughtswoman and planning engineer at Tuvox Ltd., Middlesex, Rischowski was also then invited to write another piece for The Woman Engineer on women in German engineering before the War. While cherishing Germany’s willingness to welcome women into technical careers on a greater scale than in interwar Britain, she lamented the reversal of this liberal German trend under the reactionary Nazi ideology that recast women’s place to be ‘in the home’. As a naturalized refugee from Germany, Rischowski sharply denounced all aspects of Nazism. 

After the War, Rischowski’s position in the UK Women’s Engineering Society advanced in 1948-9 to full membership and service on its Council until 1977. Her meticulously preserved records of WES Council meetings show that Rischowski keenly supported efforts to open up British women’s horizons to engineering. For example, she kept very full notes of a WES-sponsored conference for school teachers on ‘Careers for Girls in Engineering’ in July 1957.

Latterly Rischowski took part in numerous gatherings for women eminent in science and engineering in both Europe and the Americas, notably the International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists (ICWES) that met every three-four years from 1964. These were initiated by the US-based Society of Women Engineers (SWE), and Rischowski herself worked closely with them to organize the second ICWES gathering at Cambridge in 1967. 

Intriguingly in the Proceedings of the first ICWES she is listed as ‘Mrs. Ira. Rischowski, Dipl. Ing., VDI,  Elliott Process Automation Ltd. (Elliott Bros. Ltd.) London.’  Neither standard histories of electronics nor of the Elliott companies in particular record her contributions to computing. Indeed information from the LSE library indicates only that from 1944 Rischowski worked as draughtswoman for James Gordon Ltd in London and then Head of the Projects Department from 1956 until retirement. Is there perhaps a mystery here…?

Suffice to say that details of Ira Rischowski’s actual work in engineering are scant; without such information it might be a challenge to memorialize Ira Rischowski in Wikipedia as an engineer, per se. Nevetheless, upon her death in 1989, the WES President Dorothy Hatfield recalled with admiration Ira Rischowski’s work as a major ICWES organizer and indeed that for WES itself she had been ‘an inspiration to us all’. 

Learning more from the archives: the Register of Women Engineers, 1935

Dr Emily Rees

The copy of the register held at the IET Archives

Tracing the history of women in engineering can be challenging; often women’s work is undocumented or disguised. As Elizabeth Bruton’s previous blog post discussed, material held in archives such as the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) is invaluable to researching the long history of women in engineering. In this blog, I will focus on a small, but incredible revealing, source from the IET archives: the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) Register of Women Engineers, published in the Autumn of 1935. 

Though the foreword to the register recognises the incompleteness of the record, it is an important resource for researching the careers of women in engineering in the interwar period. Interestingly, this was not a regular WES publication and we aren’t entirely sure why it was produced in 1935. At first glance the booklet appears as merely a register, listing names, qualifications, place of work, hobbies and contact details, but if we look more closely at the information the women provide, we can learn large amounts about the various pathways that women took in the early twentieth century and the wide-ranging careers they had in the field of engineering. What’s more, we get a small glimpse into the personalities and passions of these women, providing us with a sense of who these women were and what engineering meant to them. 

On the subject of education, the register brings to light the different ways in which the women entered into engineering-related jobs. Some of the women have bachelor’s degrees (though not all of these are in engineering) and a few entries list postgraduate qualifications, including a PhD holder. The universities listed include UCL, Cambridge and Birmingham, while for entries from women who qualified in the United States, Columbia is listed more than once, as is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The register shows that a more common route into engineering-based professions was through attending college. Several entries mention college courses of some kind, including evening courses and correspondence ones. Both the College of Technology in Manchester and the Royal Technical College in Glasgow appear in more than one entry. 

Inside the register

These more ‘formal’ routes are by no means the only ways in which the women in the register made their way into engineering, other entries speak of teaching qualifications in related subjects, while several women, who mostly left formal education after school, describe their education in terms of apprenticeships or learning on the job. A few entries make reference to war-time work such as working in factories or driving ambulances as part of their formative educational experiences. These varied pathways into engineering help us to see that there were different opportunities for women to access education and training, whether through more traditional academic routes, or more practice-based methods, which may have allowed a range of women, from various backgrounds, to find work in the field.  

We find something similar when we look at the variety of work experience and roles that are listed in the entries. If the women’s educations were a smorgasbord of pathways, the various roles they filled is no different: there are reports of work as teachers, draughtsman, researchers, assistants, secretaries, consultants, and writers. Again, we find certain locations reoccurring, especially where there were companies that we know hired large amounts of women, such as Ferranti in Manchester and Galloway in Kirkcudbright. 

Through this we also discover the wide range of engineering areas that the women were specializing in, there are references to women working in electrical, aeronautical, chemical, mechanical, naval and metallurgical engineering. Women’s work in engineering was not concentrated in any one specialty or job type; they were working across fields, with varied educational backgrounds, in a range of roles. 

Furthermore, the nationalities and places of work of the women is another factor with large variables. Not only are there examples from across the United Kingdom, there are several entries from the United States, including Lillian Gilbreth, who famously fought for the improvement of women’s domestic lives using her training in psychology and domestic sciences. There are two entries from women educated and working in Germany and one in Australia. Under the contact details, we find that some of the women, though educated in Britain, live as far afield as Palestine, Egypt, and New Zealand. It reminds us that WES’s membership was truly international, due to it being the first engineering society for women in the world. 

Beyond their working lives, we are given a small insight into the women’s leisure pursuits, as their hobbies and interests are listed. The women’s interest in engineering often spills over into their private time. A more eccentric answer comes from a Mrs Cecil Roland McKenzie who states her hobbies as: radio experiments, microscopical work, and tropical fish hatchery. More frequently, driving or motoring appears in the list, with flying coming up a few times. A common theme across the leisure pursuits is the abundance of outdoor, energetic activities, including sailing, skiing, team sports, riding and, for a few, fishing and hunting. Going against the stereotypical image of the domesticated housewife, the list suggests a group of women living fast-paced dynamic lives, beyond the confines of domestic drudgery (which leading WES member Caroline Haslett was so keen to relieve women from). 

Though, on the surface level, only a functional document, the register gives us an indication of the professional pride that these women took in their work, which is evident in the way they share their professional achievements, including patents, memberships, and writing. To cite only two, Margaret Rowbotham (one of WES’s founding members) states that she was one of the first six women motorcyclists and Mary Miller writes that she was came sixth in a class of fifty in Advanced Mechanics and that she was ‘the only girl.’ These examples show women who are proud to have been pioneering in some way and to have broken through barriers. 

There are too many achievements to list here, but reading the entries highlights the vast range of activities these women had done, from the technical to the literary, and, in this way, the registers acts not just as a directory of women in engineering but as a celebration of them too. In more practical terms, it allows us to see which WES members were practising engineers and those which were involved with engineering in more peripheral ways, but still found a home within WES.

If you are interested in exploring the stories of women in engineering in a creative fashion, we will be holding creative writing workshops, the first of which will be at Armley Mills Industrial Museum in Leeds on the 15th September, book here.

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