Women Who Helped Build the World Around Us

Ellena Tangi

March 8, 2018

Even in 2018, engineering is still thought of as a largely male-dominated industry. The UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe.  However, throughout history, there have been many women who have significantly contributed to various fields of engineering and construction, while likely overcoming discrimination and social challenges to do so. To celebrate International Women’s Day, we’ve compiled a list of some of the inspirational women who helped build the world around us.

Sarah Guppy was a British born inventor who contributed to the design of Britain’s infrastructure including the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol and developed several domestic products. In 1811 she patented the first of her inventions, a method of making safe piling for bridges whereby verticle rows of piles were driven into the ground and fixed together by a frame to resist water erosion. Her patented design was used in a number of suspension bridge foundations. Sarah took out 10 patents in the first half of the nineteenth century including a method of keeping ships free of barnacles that led to a government contract worth £40,000.

Olive Dennis was an engineer whose design innovations changed the nature of railway travel. In 1920, she obtained a Civil Engineering degree from Cornell University. She was hired that year as a draftsman by the B & O Railroad to design bridges. The following year, Olive became B&O’s first Service Engineer.Among the innovations that Ms Dennis introduced on passenger trains were seats that could partially recline; stain-resistant upholstery, larger dressing rooms, dimmed ceiling lights and air-conditioned compartments. Other rail carriers followed suit in the years that followed and buses and airlines, in turn, had to upgrade their level of comfort in order to compete with the railroads.

Emily Roebling was the daughter of John Roebling, designer of the Brooklyn Bridge. Emily became involved in the Brooklyn Bridge project when her father-in-law died and her husband, Washington, took over as the master bridge builder. In order to help her husband as much as she could, Emily started studying topics in civil engineering – maths, strength of materials, stress analysis and cable construction. In 1872, Washington came down with an illness that left him bed-ridden and partially paralysed. Now, Washington had to rely on Emily to carry out plans for completion of the bridge. In addition to answering questions about the bridge from officials and contractors, Emily also kept all the records, answered mail, delivered messages and requests to the bridge office. Emily became such a major participant in the project that many people began to believe she was Chief Engineer.

Beatrice Shilling was a British aeronautical engineer from Hampshire. During the Battle of France and Battle of Britain in 1940, RAF pilots discovered a serious problem in fighter planes with Merlin engines, such as the Hurricane and Spitfire. When the plane went nose-down to begin a dive, the resulting negative g-force would flood the engine’s carburettor, causing the engine to stall. In combat, a German fighter could evade a pursuing RAF fighter by flying a Negative G manoeuvre which the RAF plane couldn’t follow. Beatrice devised the R.A.E. restrictor to solve this problem. It was a small metal disc with a hole in the middle, fitted into the engine’s carburettor. The disk limited maximum fuel flow and prevented flooding. By March 1941, she had led a small team on a tour of RAF fighter bases, installing the devices in their Merlin engines.

Dame Zaha Hadid was an Iraqi-British architect. She received the UK’s most prestigious architectural award, the Stirling Prize, in both 2010 and 2011, and was made a Dame for her services to architecture in 2012. Some of her most famous designs are the London 2012 Olympics Aquatic Centre, the Sheikh Zayed Bridge in Abu-Dhabi, Galaxy SOHO in Beijing and the Riverside Museum in Glasgow. She was previously described by The Guardian as the ‘Queen of the curve’ who “liberated architectural geometry, giving it a whole new expressive identity.” referring to her sweeping, fluid and dynamic designs. In 2015 she became the first and only woman to be awarded the Royal Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects.

As a recruitment company specialising in Construction & Engineering, we’re proud to support women throughout their career in the industry. We employ a number of male and female consultants who have engineering backgrounds who are happy to offer advice about developing a sustainable and fulfilling profession. Call 0208 522 8888 to speak to a member of our team and click here to browse our current vacancies.