Women have been taking part in incredible engineering developments for generations. Keep reading to learn how the first women in engineering paved the way for women today.


TL;DR
There have been some amazing women in engineering history...
Beatrice Shilling helped Spitfire and Hurricane pilots win WWII. Emily Roebling was chief engineer for the Brooklyn Bridge. Thelma Estrin built the first computer in Israel and developed a system to convert EEG into digital signals. Cleone Benest ran her own mechanical workshop. Hedy Lamarr invented the technology used for Wifi. Katherine Johnson was responsible for NASA calculations that took the US to space. Stephanie Kwolek invented Kevlar. Maria Teresa de Filippis was the first female F1 driver.

Beatrice Shilling

(March 1909 – November 1990)

Beatrice Shiling woman engineer
Royal Air Force [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Shilling was an aeronautical engineer during WWII. She started her career in engineering early, buying her first motorbike at the age of 14 and tinkering with it. In 1934 she earned an MSc in Mechanical Engineering at Manchester University.

She is most famous for ‘Miss Shilling’s Orifice’ a simple repair for Merlin Engines fitted to Spitfire and Hurricane fighter planes. The engine suffered from stalling during a nosedive, as fuel would flood the engine. This meant German planes were able to outmaneuver British planes easily. She devised a simple thimble shape with a hole cut in that limited the fuel flow and allowed British pilots to regain the advantage.

spitfire
WWII Spitfire

 

Outside of airplanes Shilling raced motorbikes. She beat professional riders, such as Noel Pope, and was awarded the Gold Star for lapping the Brooklands circuit at 106 miles per hour (171 km/h) on her Norton M30. Between 1959 and 1962 she raced with her husband in an Austin-Healey Sebring Sprite.

Emily Roebling

(September 23, 1843 – February 28, 1903)

Portrait of Emily Warren female engineer RoeblingC harles-Émile Auguste Carolus Duran
Left: Carolus-Duran [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Right: Brooklyn Bridge under construction
Roebling is best known as the Chief Engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge. When her husband (Washington Roebling – the original chief in charge) became too ill to continue, due to severe caisson disease (decompression disease), she stepped up and took responsibility for the project management. She didn’t just relay information from her husband to the workers she studied to understand the needs of the construction and also carried out examinations of technical issues, materials, stress analysis, construction, and calculations. When the bridge was opened in 1883 she was the first to ride across it.

[The Brooklyn Bridge is] an everlasting monument to the sacrificing devotion of a woman and of her capacity for that higher education from which she has been too long disbarred. – Abram Stevens Hewitt

Thelma Estrin

(February 21, 1924 – February 15, 2014)

Thelma Estrin female engineers
Thelma Estrin via Wikimedia Commons

Estrin was one of the first people to apply computer technology to healthcare. She originally wanted to be an accountant, thanks to her natural ability in mathematics, however with the outbreak of WWII she moved into the engineering field, eventually graduating with a Ph.D. in 1951.

While her husband worked at UCLA, due to her gender, she was unable to join him and so, taught drafting at the junior college. After that, in 1954, she and her husband moved to Israel to build the WEIZAC (Weizmann Automatic Computer). This was the first computer in Israel and one of the first large-scale, stored-program, electronic computers in the world, at the time.

Weizmann Automatic Calculator
Ba’Asor Le’Israel. Masada Publishing, Jerusalem, 1958 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
When she returned to the US she worked in the Brain Research Institute at UCLA where she served as director of the Data Processing Laboratory from 1970-1980. During this time she developed the first system to convert Electroencephalography (EEG – a way of monitoring electrical brain activity), into digital signals.

In 1980, she was finally recognized by the UCLA and awarded a position as professor in the Computer Science Department of the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Cleone Benest

(June 1880 – December 1963)

Cleone Benest Used under the fair usage license.

Benest was one of the first women to pass the mechanical examinations of the City and Guilds of London Institute, Royal Automobile Club, and Portsmouth Municipal College and was also the first woman to drive a bus.

She was an automotive nut and owned her own 1906 Lanchester Motor Company 12-hp tonneau and a 12-hp Fiat. Both of which she maintained herself, in her own workshop. She also competed in motorsport competitions in 1911.

She started her career running her own electrical automotive and mechanical engineering consulting firm which repaired mechanical devices and offered courses in motor mechanics. With the outbreak of WWI she moved into aircraft engine inspection.

In 1922 she founded The Stainless Steel and Non-Corrosive Metals Company Ltd. Her directors were also women, unheard of at the time. At this time she also became the chair of the Women’s Electrical Society.

It’s a sign of the times, that despite all of these achievements, she often working under the pseudonym C. Griff.

Hedy Lamarr

(November1914 – January 2000)

hedy lamarr, actress and invertor women engineers
Hedy Lamarr, actress and invertor

Probably the most unusual woman on this list is Lamarr (born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler). She started out life as an actress, has a Hollywood star to her name and is credited as having a highly controversial sex scene during the Gustav Machatý’s film Ecstasy. However, she’s also the lady that co-invented the technology that gives us Bluetooth and wifi. Proving that she’s much more than just a pretty face!

Maybe even more incredibly, she was untrained and self-taught. During WWII, she worked with her friend and composer George Antheil. Together they developed a device that could not be tracked or jammed, unlike the radio-controlled torpedo system of the time. To do this they created a frequency hopping signal. The pair patented the technology in 1942, although it was not adopted by the US Navy until 1962. This technology is now used in almost all of our wireless devices.

Katherine Johnson

(August, 1918-)

NASA ladies African-American women Engineers
Woman of NASA Langley. From left: Christine Darden , Katherine Johnson (seated), Janet Stephens, Katherine Smith, and Sharon Stack. NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Johnson is a mathematician who is partly responsible for the calculations for the first, US, manned space flights. She worked at NASA for 35 years and was involved in the calculations for many space flights including John Glenn, the first American in orbit, and a mission to Mars.

She was the first African-American woman and one of only 3 African-American students to attend West Virginia University in 1938. In 1952 she began working at NACA (which later became NASA) within a group of women, often referred to as “human calculators” or “calculators in skirts”. Later she was “temporarily” moved to an all-male research team along with another female colleague. She never returned to the original, all-female team.

The film Hidden Figures was made based on her life and two fellow African-American women, also working at NASA at the same time: Dorothy Vaughan – the first African-American woman to supervise a group of staff at the center and Mary Jackson – NASA’s first African-American, woman engineer.

Stephanie Kwolek

(July 1923 – June 2014)

Stephanie Kwolek Women in Chemistry
Image of chemist and entrepreneur Stephanie Kwolek. Science History Institute [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Kwolek is best known for inventing Kevlar. This means that she is responsible for saving thousands of lives with bulletproof vests! She was one of the first ever female research chemists and the first American chemist of Polish heritage, male or female!

kevlar protective gear
A photo of a flack jacket and kevlar helmet of a U.S. Marine Corps Marine. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Joseph A. Stephens) (Released)

In 1946, Kwolek earned a Bachelor of Science degree with a major in chemistry from Margaret Morrison Carnegie College of Carnegie Mellon University. With the event of WWII, a job became available at DuPont’s Buffalo, New York, facility in 1946. It was during her time at the company she invented Kevlar.

Maria Teresa de Filippis

(November 1926 – January 2016)

1949 Maria Teresa de Filippis

Filippis was the first woman to race in Formula 1. She won her first race driving a Fiat 500 in a 10 km drive between Salerno and Cava de’ Tirreni. In the 1954 Italian sports championship, she finished 2nd and 2nd in a sports car race in 1956 Naples Grand Prix, in a Maserati 200S. Between 1958-59 she participated in 5 Grands Prix driving for Maserati. She was inspired to proove her brothers wrong when they told her she would drive too slowly.

women in engineering
1955 De Filippis Maserati Unknown photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Although her victories were few, she is widely recognized as the woman to open the doors to other female F1 drivers and engineers.

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