“I am absolutely convinced that there is in many women, as there is in many men, an innate love of machinery.” Ray Strachey

Some leading women engineers of the early 20th century

Early pioneers of the Women's Engineering Society
Early pioneers of the Women's Engineering Society. Rowbotham, Shilling and Partridge are on the left.

The Women's Engineering Society, founded in 1919, was the first professional organisation in the world dedicated to the campaign for women's rights. It was populated from the start by an array of trailblazing characters, including Margaret Rowbotham, Beatrice (Tilly) Shilling and Margaret Partridge. Its first secretary was Caroline Haslett.

Margaret Rowbotham was a Cambridge mathematics graduate with a passion for motor engineering. She trained at the British School of Motoring in workshop practice and driving. In 1917 she became works supervisor at the Galloway Engineering Company at Tongland, near Kirkcudbright, in southwest Scotland, where the workforce was largely female. Before and after the war Tongland made automobiles – one, called the Galloway, designed specifically for women – but its munitions work involved the manufacture of aircraft parts. After the war Rowbotham joined forces with her friend Margaret Partridge in a domestic electrification project.

Tilly Shilling was determined from a young age to become an engineer. After school, she got a job with an electrical engineering company, learning how to install electrical wiring and generators. She later gained an MSc in mechanical engineering from Manchester University, and in 1936 she was hired by the Royal Aircraft Establishment, the research and development agency of the RAF, in Farnborough, Hampshire. She became widely known for an invention called ‘Miss Shilling’s orifice’, reckoned to have saved the lives of many pilots. This was a small metal disc with a hole in the middle, which was fitted into the engines of fighter planes with Merlin engines, such as the Hurricane and the Spitfire, to regulate the flow of fuel and prevent their engines flooding and stalling when the planes dived.

Margaret Partridge was an electrical engineer and businesswoman who set up her own company to run and maintain small power stations in Devon. During the Second World War she founded Exeter Munitions Ltd and was appointed women's technical officer for the southwest, advising on female employment in munitions factories. She was the chief author The Electrical Handbook for Women. 'My dear – for sheer exciting experience, give me a town to light – 70-miles-an-hour belts and 320 Volts on the board with a well-soaked cement floor,' she wrote to her friend Caroline Haslett, 'and then remember you are the responsible engineer for the whole lot, and there isn’t another soul within 20 miles who understands the switchboard!!!’