Does my internet look big in this?

A blog post by Nina Walsh

If you sit and think for a minute, how many famous female engineers or inventors can you come up with (no googling allowed)? Marie Curie, radioactivity… And?

I couldn’t think of many more. It was bugging me, so I went digging.

Did you know that Marie Curie wasn’t just the first woman ever to win a Nobel Prize, but she is one of only two people ever to have won two Nobel Prizes in two different fields? Which I thought was absolutely amazing.

It turns out that when women do things right, they tend to do them really right.

Have you ever heard of Margaret E. Knight? I hadn’t. Margaret was working around the same time as Marie Curie, busy designing one of her most famous inventions – the paper-bag-making machine. First, it was patented by a man who’d stolen the idea and claimed it for himself. During the ensuing court case, he said that she couldn’t have designed the machine because a woman “could not possibly understand the mechanical complexities.” Rightfully, she won her case and took ownership of the patent. Before she called it a day, she invented more than 100 different machines and patented many of them. My favourite? The rotary engine – though I may be biased, being in the automotive industry. Turns out, the only thing she couldn’t “possibly understand” was how to not innovate.

I’m sure you’ve heard of Alan Turing and his fantastic work at Bletchley Park during WWII making significant advances in theoretical computer science and his first ‘stored-programme computer’. However, far fewer people know that before him was Ada Lovelace, who back in the 1800s, had created the world’s first machine algorithm (the earliest known computer programme). After Ada, a genius named Grace Hopper came along and convinced the world that if we gave computers a ‘language’ rather than just numbers to programme with, we could make programming and computers far more accessible and useful. Pretty good idea, right?

Grace Hopper. Photograph: Karen, Flickr, Creative Commons

Hedy Lamarr, though, is such an archetypal example of women in science: this one took my breath away.  See, I know that she was a wildly glamorous actress of the black and white era of cinema, but what I did not realise was that she was also an extremely intelligent lady of Austrian-American heritage whose exceptional talents also extended to maths and engineering. Hedy had an idea during WWII, which she brought to life with her musician and composer friend George Anthiel. Hedy realised that radio-controlled torpedoes could be easily jammed and set off course, so using her knowledge of music and radio signals – she and George designed a device to enable torpedoes to overcome this. After patenting the innovation, a modified version of this eventually came into action 20 years later by the U.S Navy. It also proved to be the basis for the later development by others of things like GPS, Bluetooth and WiFi. So how come I still only knew of her because she was gorgeous?

There are so many more too! Rosalind Franklin and the DNA double helix. Stephanie Kwolek and Kevlar: five times stronger than steel, and known for its use in everything from bulletproof vests to frying pans and bicycle tyres. How about Shirley Jackson? She was the first black woman to be awarded a PhD from MIT, and her work with sub-atomic particles laid the groundwork for little things like solar cells and fibre-optic cables (anyone here heard of the internet, at all?!).

Shirley Jackson receiving her National Medal of Science from Barack Obama. Photo: https://president.rpi.edu/president-biography

Okay, let’s bring it back to current times. The barriers to women entering science, maths, engineering and anything are lower now than they have ever been. Figures published by the National Statistics Office and the Intellectual Property Office a few years ago show that although the numbers are still low, they are rising. Only 8.2% of professional engineers in 2015 were women, as were only 26.4% of science and engineering technicians. In 1980, under 4% of UK patent applications were filed by women, only increasing to 7% by 2016.

Here’s the thing: I’m a woman. I have a certificate to prove it and everything. I may not actually be an engineer (yet – that’s another story), but I have been working in engineering for longer than I care to confess here. Though I must admit, I am appalled at the extent to which I have been utterly unaware of women’s colossal contributions to the world as we know it, even until now, with where I work.

So, can we get on with it now please ladies?  I work in new automotive technologies, and there are very often women working in these firms. The majority of the time, they tend not to be the engineer or the inventor, but they are usually a very significant part of the drive and the momentum behind it all.

It’s taken me until now to get really excited about engineering, and that’s because I’ve had my eyes opened to the opportunities available. There are loads of ways to enter the industry and get support in doing it. My team is dedicated to helping innovators take their great ideas and turn them into a business.

If you’ve got a low-carbon automotive innovation that can change the world, use our Technology Developer Accelerator Programme to take you to that next level and maybe you might just join the list of amazing women above.