Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines explores one of the fascinating untold dramas of the 20th century – the true story of Britain’s early women engineers and their success in fanning the flames of a social revolution, as well as their achievements in science and technology. Many of these trailblazers have disappeared from history, but Magnificent Women will bring them back to life.
The drama centres on a group of remarkable individuals who in 1919 came together to create the Women’s Engineering Society. Their leaders were Katharine and Rachel Parsons, wife and daughter of the engineering genius Charles Parsons, and Caroline Haslett, a self-taught electrical engineer who campaigned to free women from domestic drudgery and became the most powerful professional woman of her age. These three protagonists and the other main players encountered hardships and joys during the First World War that shaped their intellectual and political views. Their intertwined stories and sometimes tempestuous relationships form the core of the book, but it includes an array of other colourful characters.
Drawn from across the social spectrum, the cast includes Eleanor Shelley-Rolls, sister of car magnate Charles Rolls; Viscountess Rhondda, a director of 33 companies who founded and edited the revolutionary Time and Tide magazine; and Laura Willson, a suffragette and labour rights activist from Halifax, who was twice imprisoned for her political activities.
This is not just the story of the women themselves, but also of the era in which they lived. Beginning at the moment when women in Britain were allowed to vote for the first time, and to stand for Parliament – and when several professions were opened up to them – Magnificent Women charts the changing attitudes towards women in society and in the workplace, and towards engineers in particular. In a penetrating final chapter that looks at the present and the future, it identifies what’s changed and what hasn’t, and sets out to inspire a new generation of female engineers to take up the challenge.
Elegantly written by acclaimed biographer Henrietta Heald, and beautifully illustrated with black-and-white archive photographs, Magnificent Women makes a fitting centenary tribute to a group of extraordinary female pioneers.
What was a girl to do? Rachel Parsons (1885–1956): engineer and feminist campaigner
What was a girl to do in the year 1900 if she wanted to become an engineer? It helped to have a father called Charles Parsons, whose creation of the steam turbine had marked him out as an inventive genius – to say nothing of a star-gazing grandfather who had built a six-foot-diameter telescope, the largest in the world for more than 70 years. The ancestral astronomer was William Parsons, third earl of Rosse, president of the Royal Society from 1848 to 1854.
Perhaps even more important was the legacy of a grandmother, Mary Rosse, who had herself been an astronomer and engineer, as well as a pioneer of early photography, and the influence of a mother who would become one of the foremost campaigners in northeast England for women’s rights.
Rachel Parsons was 15 years old at the dawn of the 20th century. From early childhood she had shown an aptitude for science and was never happier than when helping her father in his workshop. Rachel and her brother, Tommy, grew up in Northumberland and spent their days roaming the moors or crashing through the waves in increasingly faster boats. Their father, meanwhile, was building up a highly successful industrial concern at Heaton, on the eastern edge of Newcastle upon Tyne.
Rachel had been aboard her father’s legendary Turbinia at the Spithead Navy Review of June 1897, celebrating Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, when the speed of the little ship amazed the watching crowd, including the Royal Family, Lords of the Admiralty and visiting foreign dignitaries. Built as an experimental vessel, Turbinia was the first ship to be powered by Charles Parsons’s steam turbines. Much faster than all other seaborne craft of the time, she appeared unannounced at Spithead and raced between the lines of majestic ships, steaming up and down in front of the princes and admirals, and deftly evading a Navy picket boat that tried to stop her. It was a publicity stunt that alerted the world’s decision-makers to the potential of the steam turbine and set the standard for the next generation of super-vessels, including dreadnoughts and transatlantic liners such as Mauretania, Lusitania and Titanic.
Of the seven Magnificent Women who signed the document creating the Women's Engineering Society on 23 June 1919, one name stands out. At the foot of the list is Laura Annie Willson of 22 Savile Park, Halifax, West Yorkshire. Like her fellow founders, Mrs Willson is described solely by her marital status ('married woman' or 'spinster') but, unlike the rest, she had begun life with no financial or educational…
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This is my first blog post for Magnificent Women, so I'd like to start by saying a huge THANK YOU to everyone who has made a pledge to the recently launched crowdfunding campaign – and to anyone who feels inclined to do so in the future.
Crowdfunding is much more absorbing and fun than I had imagined. It has given me an excuse…
These people are helping to fund Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines.