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A History of women in engineering

Published: 22 June 2020

Women have a long-standing place in British engineering, which was shaped by the experience of the First World War. 

Women had a small but established role in engineering and technical professions before the First World War—normally through some kind of family connection. Even earlier than this, the 1841 census lists over 100 women working in engineering roles of some kind.

Women made an enormous contribution in engineering roles during the war but were forced out again by the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act which gave male engineers their pre-war positions back. The Women’s Engineering Society was set up in 1919 to combat this setback, but the number of women in engineering was slow to recover.

Find out about the inventor, the activist, the record breaker and the aviation engineer whose remarkable achievements inspired and enabled future generations of women to enter the field of engineering.

Henrietta Vansittart: a business-minded inventor

Henrietta Vansittart (1833–1883) was a British engineer, inventor and patent holder. In 1868, she was awarded a British patent for the Lowe-Vansittart propeller, a screw propeller which allowed ships to move faster and more efficiently. Vansittart was a self-trained engineer and a keen promoter of her invention. 

Early life and Lowe propeller

From the frontispiece of The History of the Lowe Vansittart Propeller (1882)
A rare portrait of Vansittart, showing her examining a scale model of a ship with the associated scale model of the Lowe-Vansittart propeller in her right hand.

Henrietta Vansittart (née Lowe) was one of six children and grew up in impoverished circumstances. 

Her father James Lowe was a blacksmith-inventor, who used his wife Marie Lowe’s money to pay for a British patent for his screw propeller in 1838.

The propeller was a limited success, but a series of legal battles centred upon infringements of his patent rights led to his bankruptcy.

Henrietta married Frederick Vansittart, then a lieutenant in the 14th Dragoons, in 1855. There is no evidence of Vansittart receiving a formal education or apprenticeship in engineering, so it's most likely she developed her knowledge of engineering and screw propellers from her father, before and after her marriage.

For example, in 1857 Vansittart accompanied her father onboard HMS Bullfinch, a four-gun wooden-screw gunboat, to test his latest screw propellers.

Lowe-Vansittart propeller

US patent no. 89712 Improved Method of Construction for Screw-Propeller, granted to H. Vansittart on 4 May 1869.

After her father’s death in a street accident in 1866, Vansittart took on his work and further developed his screw propeller to the extent that she obtained patents in her own name. She obtained a British patent in 1868 and a US patent in 1869 for her Lowe-Vansittart screw propeller.

Vansittart was far more successful than her father, establishing herself as an engineer and patent holder for nearly 20 years. The Lowe-Vansittart propeller was fitted to various naval and civil vessels including HMS Druid in 1869, the SS Lusitania and the Allan liner SS Scandinavian.

The propeller was faster, more efficient and had less vibration, and the mechanism provided better steering when operating in reverse.

The propeller received a series of national and international awards including:

  • a first-class diploma at the International Exhibition in Kensington in 1871
  • first-class diplomas and medals at the 1872 Dublin, 1875 Paris, 1876 Belgian, 1879 Sydney and 1880 Melbourne exhibitions
  • a first award of merit and gold medal at the 1881 Adelaide Exhibition.

Vansittart also presented her work before her technical peers. In 1876, she wrote and illustrated a scientific article on the Lowe-Vansittart propeller, which she presented at the London Association of Foreman Engineers and Draughtsmen in 1880—the first woman to do so.

In 1882, Vansittart authored The History of the Lowe Vansittart Propeller, a celebration of her and her father’s contribution to the development of screw propellers.

Vansittart's legacy

Vansittart’s life and successes showed that at least some women in the Victorian era could carve their own career paths in engineering. 

Using her informal familial apprenticeship, patent rights and a keen sense for promotional opportunities, Vansittart promoted and commercialised her Lowe-Vansittart screw propeller for use in naval and marine vessels to astounding success, inarguably proving that women could excel at both engineering and business.

Lady Katharine Parsons: advocate for women in engineering

Katharine, Lady Parsons (1859-1933), co-founded and led the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). She supported and collaborated with her husband on engineering projects, before the experience of managing thousands of female engineers in the First World War inspired her activism and support for greater recognition of women in this field.

Partnership with Charles Parsons

Lady Katherine Parsons Public domain
Portrait of the Hon. Lady Parsons, Katharine Parsons by Mary Rosse.

Katharine Parsons (née Bethell) was born in the East Riding of Yorkshire in 1858 and met Anglo-Irish engineer Charles Parsons in Leeds in 1882.

Charles and Katharine married a year later and worked in close partnership on several engineering projects.

Charles Parsons is credited with inventing the modern steam turbine, which revolutionised the production of electricity and marine transport. His name is on patents and he had a company under his name, C.A. Parsons and Company.

There is some evidence to suggest that Katharine collaborated professionally with Charles, during the long years spent working on steam turbines in the 1880s and 1890s. 

Only a few days after returning from their honeymoon in January 1883, Katharine was supporting his experimental work by assisting Charles and his mechanic with his prototype torpedoes at Roundhay Lake in Leeds.

This machine is the forerunner of the turbo-generators that provide most of the world's electricity today. It is the first experimental prototype produced by Charles Parsons, who promoted the turbine as a smaller and more efficient alternative to the steam reciprocating engine.
Science Museum Group Collection More information about This machine is the forerunner of the turbo-generators that provide most of the world's electricity today. It is the first experimental prototype produced by Charles Parsons, who promoted the turbine as a smaller and more efficient alternative to the steam reciprocating engine.
Portrait of Charles Parsons, by Syrian-born artist Moussa Ayoub based on an oil portrait by William Orpen The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum / Science Museum Group Collection
Portrait of Charles Parsons, by Syrian-born artist Moussa Ayoub based on an oil portrait by William Orpen.

Wartime work

Katharine Parsons managed teams of women working in armament factories during the First World War. In 1919, she was elected a Fellow of the Institution of Engineers and Ship-builders in recognition of this work and her contribution to shipbuilding. 

In addition, Rollo Appleyard’s biography Charles Parsons: His life and work (1933), published after Charles’s death in 1931, thanked Katharine for providing details of Charles's domestic and professional engineering work that only Katharine, who was engaged and literate in engineering, could have provided. 

Throughout their nearly 50-year marriage, Katharine worked closely with her husband on his engineering projects, which took place at home as well as his various company and experimental sites. One account describes Charles being so engrossed in his work that he went home before realising he had left Katharine behind at his Gateshead works. 

Home was where much of Parsons' experimental work took place. They had a home workshop where scale model turbines were made and new methods of winding dynamos tested.

[Lady Parsons] was always at [Charles Parsons’] side, always there to help him when he needed her, always supporting him with her really powerful mind and ready tact, and perfect understanding, but quietly and unobtrusively from behind the scenes.... All those who worked or played with Sir Charles were struck by her constancy as his mainstay and support.

Lady Parsons obituary by Mary Houston (1933)

Katharine's legacy

Katharine and Charles Parsons had a lasting impact on electrical engineering beyond their lifetime. Charles' work on electrical turbines, supported by Katherine, led to the large-scale introduction of electricity generated by steam turbines. This is a system still in use today.

In July 1919, Katharine delivered a lecture on 'Women's Work in Engineering and Shipbuilding during the War' at the First World War Victory Meeting in Newcastle upon Tyne. In her conclusion, Katharine pleaded for women active in engineering during the war not to be forced out of the profession and replaced by men who would be returning to it under the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act.

One practical outcome of Katharine’s activism around maintaining women’s involvement in engineering in the immediate aftermath of the First War World was the foundation of the Women's Engineering Society (WES) in July 1919. Katharine and her daughter Rachel were two of the seven founders of WES, an institution which has supported and encouraged women’s career paths in engineering and related technical professions over the past 100 years.

Amy Johnson: Britain's most famous woman aviator

Amy Johnson (1903-1941) was a British aviation pioneer and long-distance aviation record-breaker.  In May 1930 she became the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia, an 11,000-mile journey.

Early life, education and flight training

Sketch of Amy Johnson by Algernon Rowe for Air and Airways, London. Science Museum Group Collection
A sketch of Amy Johnson in her early 30s by Algernon Rowe, published by Air and Airways, London.

Born in Hull in 1903 to a family of fish merchants, Johnson studied for a degree in economics at Sheffield University. 

In 1927, Johnson came to London to work briefly at a solicitors' office. With her father's financial support, Johnson learned to fly at Stag Lane Aerodrome near Edgware, London.

Johnson joined the technical school of the De Havilland aircraft company and in 1929, aged just 22, received her ground engineer's certificate, the first awarded by the Air Ministry to a woman.

Long-distance flights 

On 5 May 1930, with only 100 hours of solo flying in her log book, Johnson set off from Croydon Airport in her Gipsy Moth 'Jason I' to break the record for the fastest flight between England and Australia. Costing £700, Johnson’s Gipsy Moth was a standard civil aircraft of the time fitted with extra fuel distance tanks.

'Jason I', de Havilland DH.60G Gipsy Moth, made in 1928 and used on Johnson's historic flight to Australia, May 1930.
Science Museum Group Collection More information about 'Jason I', de Havilland DH.60G Gipsy Moth, made in 1928 and used on Johnson's historic flight to Australia, May 1930.

Johnson’s engineering expertise enabled her to maintain and repair her aircraft and so contributed to her ability to make the journey safely and quickly. 

A photograph of Amy Johnson (1903-1941) in her plane 'Jason', taken around 1930 by an unknown photographer for the Daily Herald.
More information about A photograph of Amy Johnson (1903-1941) in her plane 'Jason', taken around 1930 by an unknown photographer for the Daily Herald.

Johnson arrived at Port Darwin, Australia 19 and a half days later and made headlines around the world. She was the first woman to make a solo flight from England to Australia and did so in record time. From then on Amy and her husband Jim Mollison attempted to break other records, until their divorce in 1938.

Amy continued to race and break records in her own right, receiving various awards and medals. In 1934, Johnson (under her married name of Mollison) became the youngest President of the Women's Engineering Society (WES).

Johnson’s wartime service and legacy

On the outbreak of the Second World War, Johnson was appointed national leader of the Women's Air Reserve and later became a pilot for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA).  Her role was to transport different aircraft needed by the RAF to different locations throughout the UK. ATA pilots were expected to fly unarmed and without radar or other navigation technologies.

Women pilots of the Air Transport Auxiliary Public domain
Women pilots of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) in flying kit at Hatfield, 10 January 1940.

In January 1941, Johnson flew her final ATA flight from Blackpool. Johnson did not make it back to her own airfield due to bad weather. In circumstances that are still unclear, she was forced to ditch over the Thames Estuary and her body was never found.

After her death, Johnson was celebrated for long-distance aviation records and her wartime work as an ATA pilot. Less well-known and celebrated were her engineering achievements, including becoming the first woman to receive a ground engineer certificate from the British Air Ministry, aged just 22.

Beatrice Shilling: aeronautical engineer

A celebrated aeronautical engineer and amateur motor racer, Beatrice Shilling (1909-1990) worked at the Royal Aircraft Establishment.  Here she designed an adaptation to the Merlin aircraft engine carburettor which gave Royal Air Force pilots an advantage during the Second World War.

Early life, engineering work and motor racing

​Beatrice Shilling on her Norton racing motorcycle, 1930s. Public domain
​Photograph of the engineer, Beatrice Shilling on her Norton racing motorcycle, 1930s. ​

Shilling had an early interest in engineering and mechanical things. She played with Meccano construction sets as a child and purchased a motorbike when she was 15, which she maintained herself. She wanted to pursue a career as an engineer, an unusual prospect for a young woman in the mid-1920s. 

Upon leaving school in 1926, Shilling began an apprenticeship in an electrical engineering company run by Margaret Partridge, a founding member of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). 

Partridge persuaded Shilling to study electrical engineering at university, where Shilling was one of only two women in her class.  Shilling received a Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1932 and an MSc in mechanical engineering in 1933, both from University of Manchester. 

Shilling first worked as a research assistant on aircraft engines before moving to the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough in 1936 to specialise in aircraft carburettors.

In parallel with her university education and aeronautical research, Shilling was a very keen motorbike racer and modified the bikes she rode to make them go faster.

In August 1934, she became the second woman to gain a Brooklands Gold Star for lapping the track at over 100mph. It was said she refused to marry her husband George Naylor, a fellow RAE researcher and motorbike racer, until he also gained a Brooklands Gold Star.

Research Aircraft Establishment work and the RAE restrictor

Shilling worked on numerous projects at the Research Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough from when she joined in 1936 until her retirement in 1969. 

The project for which she is best known was her work on the RAE restrictor, which was installed in the carburettor of Rolls Royce Merlin engines to restrict fuel flow under certain conditions. 

The restrictor ensured that these engines used in fighter aircraft such as Hurricanes and Spitfires would not cut out when in a negative G manoeuvre. It gave RAF fighter pilots a distinct advantage compared to their German counterparts in the Battle of Britain and throughout the Second World War.

Merlin 45 aeroplane engine, made by Rolls-Royce Ltd, Crewe, 1940.
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Merlin 45 aeroplane engine, made by Rolls-Royce Ltd, Crewe, 1940.

Shilling worked on other aircraft engine accessories and later problems of heat transfer while at the RAE. She worked on projects as diverse as the Blue Streak rocket and a bobsleigh for the RAF team.

Shilling’s legacy

Despite her many engineering successes, Shilling was not promoted to a high rank at the RAE. This may have been due to her uncompromising manner and difficulty with management and bureaucracy as well as a broader prejudice against women in engineering roles. But Shilling received other forms of recognition including an honorary PhD from the University of Surrey upon her retirement from the RAE in 1969.

Shilling was a trailblazer in aeronautical engineering and, through her membership of the Women’s Engineering Society, inspired subsequent generations of women working in this field.

Women's impact on engineering

Women have had an established role in engineering since well before the First World War, often through some kind of family connection, as with Henrietta Vansittart and Katharine Parsons. The growth of new fields such as electrical engineering and aeronautics saw increased opportunities for women.

Additionally, women activists pushed against the limits within universities and professional techno-scientific societies such as the Royal Society. Many were also part of wider social justice movements including the later suffrage movement to grant votes to women in Britain.

During the First World War, many men went off to war and women took their place in previously male-dominated workplaces. Women’s entry to engineering and related technical roles was cemented through the foundation of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) in June 1919.

Katharine Parsons, Amy Johnson, and Beatrice Shilling were all prominent and active members of the WES and actively encouraged other women to pursue participation in engineering and technical professions.

Through such networks, collaboration and activism, these pioneering women realised their innovations and provided inspiration for subsequent generations of women in engineering.