A black and white photograph of two women signing documents.
A brief introduction to First World War Historic photography Second World War

6 Inspirational Women Engineers from History

These pioneering women led the way in making engineering a career choice for all women.

Historically, there has been a lack of female engineers due to the societal attitudes about working women in a field that men so heavily dominated.

A photograph of a female engineer in a server room.
A female engineer on a laptop in a server room. © Sergio Azenha / Alamy Stock Photo.

Many women had the skills and qualifications to be certified engineers. However, only some professional bodies would accept them as members.

In 2020, the Women’s Engineering Society reported that just 14.5% of all engineers are women.

These are the pioneering women who led the way for future women engineers.

1. Hertha Ayrton

Hertha Marks Ayrton was a British engineer, mathematician, physicist, inventor and suffragette.

A sepia photograph of a woman in front of a bookshellf.
Hertha Ayrton, who lived between 1854 and 1923. © Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo.

Aryton attended Girton College, Cambridge, the first residential college for women, with the help of her Suffragette mentor, Barbara Bodichon.

During Aryton’s career, she was granted 26 patents, including a line divider, a mathematical tool and an engineering drawing instrument. She later developed the ‘Ayrton anti-gas fan’, designed to combat trench gas during the First World War.

A photograph of a First World War gas fan.
Hertha Ayrton’s First World War anti-gas fan. © IWM FEQ 492.

The War Office initially dismissed her invention, but with support from a fellow electrical engineer, A. P. Trotter, 104,000 fans were ordered for the Western Front.

Ayrton helped pave the way for future female engineers as she was elected the first female member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers.

In 1905, she was awarded the Hughes Medal for her impressive work on electric arcs and ripple marks in sand and water.

A photograph of a blue plaque on a house reading 'ENGLISH HERITAGE / HERTHA AYRTON / 1854-1923 / Physicist lived here / 1903-1923'.
An English Heritage blue plaque for Hertha Ayrton on 41 Norfolk Square in London. © Historic England Archive. DP187255.

Aryton’s former home in Norfolk Square, London, is marked by a blue plaque.

2. Delia Derbyshire

Delia Derbyshire was an English musician, electronic music composer and sound engineer.

Delia Derbyshire, who lived between 1937 and 2001, with sound engineer Desmond Briscoe, at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1965. © BBC.

After graduating from the University of Cambridge with a degree in math and music, Derbyshire looked for work with the record label Decca. However, they rejected her as they would not employ women in their studios.

Derbyshire instead joined the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1963. During her 11 years at the workshop, she created sound and music for almost 200 radio and TV shows.

One of her most iconic creations was the electronic arrangement for the science-fiction television show ‘Doctor Who’. She created this piece alongside Australian composer Ron Grainer.

Watch ‘How Delia Derbyshire made the Doctor Who theme’ from the BBC Archive.

This arrangement served as the theme for 17 seasons of ‘Doctor Who’, between 1963 and 1980.

Derbyshire was also one of the original members of White Noise, an experimental electronic music band. She helped produce the album ‘An Electric Storm’ during her yearlong band membership.

A blue plaque was awarded to Derbyshire in 2017, located outside of her former home in Coventry, as part of BBC Music Day.

A photograph of a blue plaque on a house reading 'BBC Music Day / DELIA DERBYSHIRE / 1937-2001 / BBC Radiophonic Workshop pioneer who influenced the course of electronic music lived here and worked here.  Awarded by BBC Coventry & Warwickshire / British Plaque Trust'.
Delia Derbyshire’s blue plaque on 104 Cedar Avenue in Coventry, West Midlands. © Coventry Live.

3. Daphne Jackson

Daphne Jackson OBE was a nuclear physicist who became the first female physics professor in the UK in 1971.

A black and white photograph of a woman.
Daphne Jackson, who lived between 1936 and 1991. © University of Surrey.

Jackson knew the inequalities women faced in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects.

She was one of only two women on her physics course at Imperial College and became an active promoter of women in STEM subjects.

As President of the Women’s Engineering Society between 1983 and 1985, she helped to establish the Women in Science and Engineering initiative to encourage girls into science and engineering.

A black and white photograph of a lecture hall with students listening to a teacher.
Daphne Jackson delivers a lecture at the University of Surrey. © University of Surrey.

In 1985, Jackson founded the UK’s returner fellowships program, designed to help women return to work following career breaks for childcare. She was awarded an OBE in 1987 for this program.

Jackson has blue plaques on her former home in Guildford, Surrey, and at her former Grammar School in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire.

A photograph of a blue plaque on a timber framed house reading 'THE INSTITUTE OF PHYSICS / DAPHNE FRANCES JACKSON OBE / 1936 - 1991 / BRITAIN'S FIRST FEMALE PROFESSOR OF PHYSICS / LIVED AT THIS ADDRESS / 1972 - 1991'.
A blue plaque for Daphne Jackson on her former home on St Omer Road in Guildford, Surrey. Source: Phillip / Flickr.

Her legacy is remembered each year on 17 November, Daphne Jackson Day.

4. Caroline Haslett

Dame Caroline Haslett was an electrical engineer who became the first Electrical Association for Women Director in 1924.

A black and white photograph of a woman.
Dame Caroline Haslett, who lived between 1895 and 1957. © Archive PL / Alamy Stock Photo.

After the First World War, Haslett qualified as an electrical engineer.

Haslett became the first Women’s Engineering Society secretary in 1919, which wanted to promote engineering as a professional pathway and for women to hold engineering roles from the First World War.

She also set up the ‘Woman Engineer’, a journal still published today.

A black and white photograph of a board meeting.
Dame Caroline Haslett, fourth from the right, at the British Electricity Authority Meeting in London in 1947. © PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo.

Haslett aimed to popularise domestic electricity use to lighten the burden on women.

In 1922, she asked women which appliances would be most helpful in the home. Many responded with a vacuum cleaner and a machine to wash the dishes.

In Crawley, West Sussex, the road ‘Haslett Avenue East’ is named after Caroline and features her blue plaque.

A blue plaque for Dame Caroline Haslett at the junction between Haslett Avenue and Three Bridges Road in Crawley, West Sussex. © Nick Scott plaques/sign photos / Alamy Stock Photo.

5. Sarah Guppy

Sarah Guppy was an English inventor who was the first woman to patent a bridge.

A black and white illustration of a woman.
Sarah Guppy, who lived between 1770 and 1852. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Her 1811 patent entitled ‘New Mode of Constructing and Erecting Bridges and Railroads without Arches’ was believed to have been used by Thomas Telford when designing the Menai Suspension Bridge in Wales.

This patent has led to claims that Guppy invented the suspension bridge, including Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol.

However, her designs were actually for a ‘hanging bridge’.

Contrary to some claims, Sarah Guppy did not invent the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. © Historic England Archive. AA98/04333.

Sarah had many other patents on domestic appliances, including a precursor to the toaster and a breakfast machine that made tea, cooked eggs and kept the plates warm.

She also secured a £40,000 contract with the Royal Navy for creating a method that protected boat hulls from barnacle growth.

Despite some uncertainty around Guppy’s claims, her achievements and contributions to engineering should not be overlooked.

6. Verena Holmes

Verena Holmes was an English mechanical engineer and multi-field inventor.

A black and white portrait photograph a woman.
Verena Holmes, who lived between 1889 and 1964. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

During the First World War, Verena began her engineering career by building wooden propellers.

Holmes was the first woman elected to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers as an associate member. Still, despite this, it took 20 more years for her to become a full member.

She was also the first woman elected to the Institution of Locomotive Engineers.

A black and white photograph of two women signing documents.
Verena Holmes, left, with factory manager Ruth Farris. © Keystone Press / Alamy Stock Photo.

Throughout her engineering career, Holmes patented several inventions devised for various applications, from medical treatments to steam locomotives.

In 1940, during the Second World War, Holmes became the advisor to Ernest Bevin on the training of munition workers.

Holmes’s birthday coincides with International Women in Engineering Day, on 23 June.

Further reading

4 comments on “6 Inspirational Women Engineers from History

  1. History slay

  2. What a fabulous article. I remember Delia very well, as I once attended a public talk about her work and I was a staunch fan of Doctor Who. I also owned the White Noise album, although I didn’t realise she was part of the group at the time. Some other really interesting ladies in the list too. Thank you. 🙂

  3. Cedric Gilson

    Not an engineer but a molecular scientist, Rosalind Franklin did the spadework research into the structure of DNA at King’s College, London, in the 1950s. Her work was overshadowed by male scientists in a era of misogyny.

  4. John Vincent

    I’d add: Amy Johnson. First woman to fly solo from England to Australia, in a de Havilland Gipsy Moth. She was the first woman in the world to qualify as an aircraft engineer.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: