Date of Publication: 27 January 2020
Engineering has been a male dominated field for centuries with today, only a mere 12% of engineers in the UK are female.
It’s not something we often hear about – female engineers who have made history. But there are certainly plenty of them, many of whom have gone on to make some of the most incredible advances for modern society. Let’s take a look at some of them below.
Zaha Hadid (1950 – 2016)
Born in 1950 in Baghdad, Hadid’s passion for incredible engineering and architecture began as a child, recalling memories of being taken by her parents to see the ancient city sites of the region, and the impact that they had on her. Though she originally trained as an architect, she worked closely with engineers throughout her career to push boundaries and make spatial statements.
Hadid studied at the American University in Beirut, specialising in mathematics and taking inspiration from her teachers and their passion for spatial design. In 1972, she moved to London to study architecture at the Architectural Association, where she then gained a position at the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA).
In 1980, she began her own practice in London, where she could really begin to experiment with her work. She is known as an architect who would consistently push boundaries, intensifying existing landscapes and pushing the limits of engineering by experimenting sweeping curvature and ground-breaking designs.
Seeing her work as pieces of art, Hadid would always begin her projects by painting and drawing, which she saw as important techniques which inspired her design work. She would then coerce with engineers to construct breathtaking designs that made real impact.
Hadid sadly passed away in 2016, aged 65, but has been hailed a ‘starchitect’ for her relentless passion, determination and boldness. During her lifetime she was awarded various prizes, such as the Pritzker prize for architecture in 2004 – which is similar to receiving a Nobel prize for architecture.
One particular stand-out piece of work (in our opinion) was The Investcorp Building in Oxford which expanded the the Middle East Centre at St Antony’s College – one of the seven graduate colleges that comprise the University of Oxford. Still used today, it features a shiny new lecture theatre, library and historical archives. – providing a new lecture theatre, library and archive.
Edith Clarke (1883 – 1959)
US engineer Edith Clarke was born in Maryland in 1883 and went on to study mathematics and astronomy at Vassar College, before teaching her subjects at a private girls’ school.
In 1911, Clarke enrolled as a civil engineering student at the University of Wisconsin, where in the summer, she worked as a computer assistant to research engineer, Dr. George Campbell. His work in computer programming fascinated her so much that she stayed on at his company where she specialised in machine learning.
In 1918, she left the position to enrol in electrical engineering at MIT, where she earned herself an MSc degree – the first which had ever been awarded to a woman.
After graduating, Clarke made many astounding advancements, such as receiving two patents related to electrical power transmissions, becoming the first woman to present a paper before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, taking on the role as the first female electrical engineering professor in the US, and, being the first woman elected as a fellow of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.
Delia Derbyshire (1937 – 2001)
An electronic music engineer, Delia Derbyshire was a BBC composer, most famously known for arranging and creating the famous Doctor Who theme tune.
Born in Coventry in 1937, Derbyshire showed early signs of a passion for music – playing with different objects as a child to create music and distinctive sounds.
A lover of composers such as Beethvoen, Bach and Mozart, Derbyshire thrived in music and mathematics at school, which led her to winning a scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge. Although electronic music was not at that time on her university syllabi, her interest in the field was stimulated by a visit to the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958 where she saw Edgard Varèse’s Poème Électronique installed in Le Corbusier’s pavilion. This was a groundbreaking fusion of electronic music, architecture and visual art, and had a huge influence on her future career.
After applying for numerous jobs in studios but being rejected for her gender, she later joined the BBC in 1960 as a trainee assistant studio manager. Just a couple of years later, she requested a transfer to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop where she thrived for many years, working on music for programmes such as ‘Know Your Car’, ‘Time On Our Hands,’ as well as the aforementioned ‘Doctor Who’ theme tune.
One of her finest works was Blue Veils and Golden Sands, an original piece created for a 1968 edition of ‘The World About Us.’ For it, she made use of only a metal lampshade and her own voice, which she recorded and re-pitched to help create the tune.
Her creative energy and refusal to give up after countless gender-restricted barriers is what makes her integrity live on. She set up numerous operations to encourage new generations to combine creativity and engineering to find their own spark, and introduced inspiring artists to the forefront of music production.
Or, if you want to read about more pioneering female engineers, take a look at the Women in Engineering Society’s extensive list.