When you say the word engineer, many people will think of a man, as the industry has been dominated by men for much of its history. But women have been designing, iterating, and engineering for just as long as men have, creating some of the most valuable and widely used products and inventions ever made, many of which have saved lives, and changed the world.
One of the most famous women in engineering history, Ada Lovelace’s pioneering work laid the foundation for all modern computers. The daughter of famous poet Lord Byron, her mother kept her away from poetry and the arts, encouraging her to pursue the sciences.
During the early 1800s Lovelace developed an interest in the Difference Engine, a mechanical calculator developed by mathematician Charles Babbage.
They collaborated together on a new, more complex machine, the Analytical Engine. It was designed, but never built. It was the first instance of a machine that would have been capable of modifying its own calculations while it was running.
While Babbage designed the machine, Lovelace played a vital role in designing the various functions, and can be thought of as one of the first software developers.
Hedy Lemarr was one of the most famous actresses of the 1930s and 40s. When not acting, she worked on engineering projects as a hobby, often in between takes on film sets. Her love of science came from her father, who would explain to her how various machines worked while out on walks together.
She devised a method of encrypting radio signals to prevent enemy spies listening to what was being broadcast. “Frequency hopping” allowed for rapid switching between radio frequencies in order to avoid a signal being jammed. By manipulating radio frequencies between transmission and reception, her technique formed a code that prevented secret messages from being intercepted by the Germans.
The technology wasn’t widely used until the invention of wi-fi and Bluetooth, but without it, there would be no wireless communication today.
Lamarr had to fight to be taken seriously, given her profession as an actress. Frequently labelled ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’, audiences allegedly gasped when she first appeared on screen. But her invention changed the course of history, and is one of the many reasons she is remembered today.
Kevlar is one of the most widely used materials in the construction of body armours in the defence sector. It was invented by Kwolek in the 1960s, while looking for an alternative substance to manufacture car tyres. She was working as a chemist at the DuPont factory in Delaware, where she carried out research on polymers.
Her discovery of the material was made by accident, and it was almost thrown away. But Kwolek ran the substance through a spinneret, and found it did not break, meaning it could have a wide variety of uses.
Kevlar is five times stronger than steel by weight, and is now used in the creation of bulletproof vests. Since its invention it has saved thousands of lives.
Because of its incredibly high tensile strength, Kevlar is also used in bow strings, tennis racquets, racing boats, and formula one cars.
On a cold day in 1902, Mary Anderson was riding in a tram car, and noticed that the driver kept both panes of the double front window open so snow and sleet wouldn’t pile up onto it and block his view. But this meant the rest of the tram was cold and open to the elements.
Realising there was an opportunity, Anderson worked with a designer to develop a hand-operated device to clear the windscreen from inside the tram. It consisted of a lever connected to a rubber blade outside which could clear snow, preventing it from covering the window.
She patented her invention in 1903, but few car makers were interested until 1917, when another woman, Charlotte Bridgwood, patented the first automatic windscreen wiper, which is now a standard feature on every car in the world.
Martha Coston invented the first signal flares, which have gone on to be used by the military, navy, and rescue operations all over the world.
At the age of 21, Coston was left a widow with four children to support. In desperate need of a way to support her family, she discovered a design for a pyrotechnic flare that her late husband had left behind in his notebook, and set about creating it for real.
For nearly 10 years she worked on perfecting the design, which needed to be bright, multi-coloured, and long-lasting if they were to be effective tools for communication over long distance, at night, and in high winds at sea.
She succeeded, and achieved a patent in 1859, with the US Navy paying her $20,000 for the rights to the flares. This was a large sum for women at that time, and a testament to the quality of her work.
These women changed the engineering industry, and inspired many other women to enter the field.