Go back to article: Engineering and the family in business: Blanche Coules Thornycroft, naval architecture and engineering design

The wider role of women in engineering

To understand Blanche’s role within engineering it is instructive to consider the careers of the two other women invested in membership of INA at the same time. Rachel Parsons also came from an engineering family. She attended Newnham College, Cambridge and studied Mechanical Sciences for five terms, completing a preliminary and a qualifying examination for Part 1 of the Tripos. She was admitted to the same grade of membership of the Institution of Naval Architects on the same day as Blanche Thornycroft. Rachel’s father, Charles Parsons, was one of the key developers of the steam turbine and she and her brother Tommy participated in experiments at home. Tommy joined his father at Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Company in Newcastle-upon-Tyne but then went to war and was killed in 1918. While he had been away, Rachel was appointed an interim Director but her father refused to let her continue after the war causing a family rift. Rachel resigned and, determined to continue in engineering, and with the support of her mother, she founded the Women’s Engineering Society. She also had a leading role in founding and running Atalanta Ltd, a female engineering company which prided itself on the excellence and range of its products. Rachel’s status within the Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Company may well be that described in the literature by Collette Dumas (Dumas, 1992, pp 41–56); a daughter not considered for work in the family business until a crisis forced the issue and then only as a temporary stopgap.[24] Such crisis acceptance of women appears not to have been the case for Blanche, however, who continued her work for the Thornycroft Company much as before the war.

The third woman accepted as an Associate Member of the Institution of Naval Architects (INA) in April 1919 did not have a family ship building connection, but did complete the Cambridge Mechanical Engineering Tripos. Eily Keary (later Smith-Keary) had been appointed in June 1915 to the National Experimental Tank, Teddington, by the superintendent, G S Baker. Work at the tank had been proceeding on the design of seaplane floats and hulls. G H Millar, who had been in charge of the work, became a military pilot, hence Keary was appointed to replace him.

Baker worked closely with Keary and this collaboration produced ten Aeronautical Research Committee Reports and Memoranda between 1916 and 1923 (Koelbel, Jr. 1971, pp 66–68). Papers were also co-authored, beginning with the experimental testing of model seaplane floats (Baker and Keary, 1918a) and progressing to experiments with full size machines, the latter in conjunction with RAF personnel (Baker, Keary, Gundry and Hackforth 1918; Baker and Keary, 1918b). Baker and Keary then progressed to testing models of flying boat hulls described in two papers (Baker and Keary, 1918c). However, their next paper was an important departure from seaplanes both scientifically and in terms of gender equality.

The paper, ‘The effect of the longitudinal motion of a ship on its statical transverse stability’, again jointly with Baker, meant that Eily Keary was the first woman to co-author a paper read at the INA (Baker and Keary, 1918d). David Bailey notes: ‘Their paper was the first of its kind on the subject and anticipated the dangerous condition that can arise in high speed craft when a loll [sic] develops due to loss in transverse stability’ (Bailey, 1995, p 50). The importance of this paper may be gauged from the fact that the latest citation of it that the authors have thus far found is in 1988.

Later in 1918 Keary was promoted to the rank of junior assistant at the tank, and this appears to have been a more senior position than might be thought. Keary was still active at the tank into the 1930s and in 1925 she addressed the Liverpool Engineering Society. Her paper was entitled ‘Manoeuvring of Ships: Model Experiments of Rudder Forces under service conditions’ (Stanley, 2016, p 88).

‘In 1929 Miss Keary left to marry but…as Mrs Smith-Keary still found time to be involved for a few more years co-authoring two papers’ (Bailey, 1995, p 49). However, as yet only one has been found by the authors (Baker and Keary, 1930).

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/1851009/007