The fabulous feats of female engineers

One of the most fascinating things about engineering is how it influences change across countless other industries. The theories, designs and mechanisms created to solve one problem can often provide the solution to so many others and in turn, inspire more ideas, generate more models and influence the creation of more instruments.

To help inspire today’s engineers, I wanted to reflect on some key feats of engineering achieved over the past 160 years. And, in honour of Women in Engineering Day, I wanted to focus on those amazing accomplishments made by female engineers.

Environmental excellence


In America 1879, following the huge infrastructure and power developments made during the Industrial Revolution, Mary Walton sought a solution to one of the era’s by-products; air pollution. Mary developed a method for mitigating pollution from smokestacks by deflecting the emissions into water tanks and flushing them through the sewage system. Later, she applied the same method to trains, reducing coal smoke from the engines. Following her work in reducing air pollution, Mary turned her attention to noise pollution, coming up with a way to silence the city railways, which she sold to New York City’s Metropolitan Railroad.

Today we know so much more about the damaging effects pollution has on the environment and have realised the necessary role that renewable energy sources play in energy provision, so much so that the renewables energy market supports more than 7.5 million jobs worldwide.

US engineer Mary Walton was a pioneer of pollution control

Saving lives on the sea


Although life rafts already existed, in 1880, multi-inventor Maria Beasley strived to invent an improved version which was fire-proof, compact and readily-launched. Maria’s raft design sported guard railings and had the ability to fold and unfold for easy storage and use. Clearly, ship design has come a long way since, with the manufacture of new materials but Maria’s ambition to improve the practicality of an existing product represents an admirable trait shared by many engineers today: the desire to make things work better.

Driving innovation


When the automotive industry was in its infancy, Mary Anderson created a device that would forever improve the way people drive in wet and snowy conditions – the windscreen wiper. Previously, drivers would have to stop and manually clear their windscreens to clear their view of the road ahead. Following a drive one frosty morning in New York, Mary was inspired to find a solution to the stop-start nature of driving in these conditions. She developed a simple device – a spring-loaded arm with a rubber blade – which could be controlled by a lever inside the vehicle and was awarded a patent for her design in 1903. In 1917, Mary’s design was superseded by an automatic version created by fellow female engineer Charlotte Bridgwood. Healthy competition between engineers continues to drive forward innovation in engineering today.

Making mechanical history


The most defining moment in the career of Aeronautical engineer Beatrice Shilling was during the Second World War, when she corrected a serious defect on the Rolls Royce engines used in the Hurricanes and Spitfire aircraft. To prevent the Merlin engines from cutting out during diving, Beatrice designed a flow restricting device which reduced fuel deprivation to the engine. She was later awarded an OBE for her efforts during the war, which no doubt saved many lives.

Beatrice Shilling was awarded an OBE for critical modifications to the Spitfire's Merlin engine

Helping to build a vertical city


The Shard is one of London’s most recognisable buildings and is a fine example of innovation in infrastructure. A key member of the project team was Structural Engineer Roma Agrawal, who helped design the foundations and worked on the impressive 500 tonne, 66 metre spire. The innovative use of ‘top-down’ construction, allowing 23 storeys of the tower to be built before the basement underneath it had been fully excavated, was a world first for a building standing 310 metres tall.

Structural engineer Roma Agrawal played a key role in the design of London's iconic Shard skyscraper.

Women may not have had as many opportunities in the past to make breakthroughs in engineering, and unfortunately, even when they did, they weren’t always given the credit for it. However, these examples show that regardless of gender, the qualities it takes to be an engineer – problem-solving, clear communication, patience and tenacity - have remained the same throughout history. By reflecting on and celebrating the successes of the past, we can learn a lot about how to progress in the future.

As a specialist engineering recruiter, Matchtech promotes the contribution that the industry makes to the economy and supports initiatives which encourage people to consider a career in this inspiring industry.

Keith Lewis, Chief Operating Officer of Matchtech Group Plc and Managing Director of engineering recruitment specialist Matchtech.