Women Engineers – From Airships to the Space Race

Dr Nina Baker, took us on a journey on Thursday 10th of September, celebrating the work and influence of women engineers from the earliest innovators in flight with balloon technology, through to the Space Age.

The talk was one of three as part of Orkney’s Aviation Festival which for 2020 went online hosted by Orkney International Science Festival.

Women engineers have had so little recognition for their part in the development of aviation, or indeed in any other field. This short presentation by Dr Baker went some way to raising awareness about these pioneering women.

The Weinling Family of the 1880s – 1920s started their business making small toy hydrogen filled balloons. This required the production of a very lightweight material, ‘goldbeater’s skin’ made from cow intestines. This was extremely skilled work and they were soon employed by the Royal Balloon School. They were the first women to do any aeronautical work.

In 1883, they worked on the production of a successful new balloon, the Heron, the first of many balloons and airships built for the Army over the next thirty years. Goldbeater’s skin remained a secret held only by Britain and gave them a lead over their continental rivals that lasted until the advent of airships.

You can find out more about their work here:

Making and mending the gas envelopes required for Airship production in WW1 was run by the Weinling women and it continued to be a mostly women’s trade until the 1920s.

The First World War 1914 – 1918 saw the rapid development of Flight technology and it was also to see a profound change in the work women were employed to do.

Hilda M Lyon

Dr Nina Baker has written a book about Hilda Lyon (1896 – 1946) and her talk covered some of the achievements of this engineer.

In WW1 Hilda Lyon took a Maths degree at Cambridge University and was then recruited to work on the development of Airships, including the ill fated R101.

Her work on the effect of turbulence on the drag of airships – The Lyon Shape – looked at air resistance according to the different shapes. Although not adopted by the UK, the USA and the USSR did take on her design for their submarines with a ‘bluffer’ shape at the front and tapering towards the rear.

On returning to the UK from the US she was employed by the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) from 1937. After a botched operation she died in 1946 , aged only 50.

Adventures in Aeronautical Design: The Life of Hilda M. Lyon by Nina Baker is available from Amazon.

Several other notable women were covered in the talk.

Beatrice Shilling (1909 – 1990) who worked at the Royal Aircraft Establishment during WW2. Her designs included the Restrictor for Rolls Royce Merlin engines for Spitfires. She specialised in fuel systems and motors. In rocket development she was involved with the Vickers Transonic Rocket .

Also in rocket design was Joan Lavender (1928 -2008) who was employed by de Havilland/BAE from 1948 – 1987. Joan had no degree but worked her way up through the company and this took her into work with guided missiles. Peggy Hodge (1921 – 2008) also worked for a company , GEC on missile technology like Sea Dart.

Not to be forgotten were the many, many women, making mathematical calucations (computers) at bases like the Woomera Range, Australia.

Anne Pellow Burns

As the technology of rockets took us into space, women worked on the design of oxygen masks, helmets and suits. Engineers such as: Helen Grimshaw (1904 – 1987)and Kate Maslen (1920 – 2002).

Anne Burns (1915 – 2001) with Kat Maslen investigated flight safety and the Comet crashes in the 1950s.

As World War 2 came to an end, the USA, Britain and the USSR, were keen to get hold of the rocket technology which the German’s had been developing. Johanna Weber (1910 – 2014) was one of many engineers ‘taken’ along with valuable equipment to work on rocket and missile technology after the war in those countries. She specialised in wing profiles and worked for the RAE from the Autumn of 1946.

This fascinating talk by Dr Baker shines a very welcome light on the women engineers and their contribution to Flight technology.

The link to this highly recommended talk is here:

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

2 replies »

Leave a Reply