Archives Biographies: Gertrude Entwisle

Women engineers - absurd! More than anything else I think we were a shock to masculine complacency.

This was the opinion of Gertrude Entwisle, an electrical engineer who notched up an impressive number of firsts in her career. She was the first woman to be admitted to the technical staff of British Westinghouse, the first woman member of the Society of Technical Engineers and the first Student, Graduate and Associate Member of the IEE (now the IET).

She was also one of the first women to attend engineering lectures at Manchester University after the engineering faculty decided to open its classes to women mid-way through her physics degree.

Unsurprisingly, her steady progression excited a great deal of disturbance. When she attended her first IEE meeting, the lecturer mistook her for a militant suffragette and stopped all proceedings.

After being transferred to the design department at British Westinghouse, her employers realised that she would have to gain some practical experience but were so worried at the idea of a woman in the shops that a special meeting was convened. The Board's first stipulation was that she had to wear trousers - then they panicked and insisted that she wear a skirt!

She recalled that her first appearances in the works were heralded by the sound of hammering, as the men warned each other of her approach. And, after her election to the Institution, it took half an hour and the special pleading of the Secretary of the North Western Branch to gain admittance to the Manchester Engineers Club to attend a meeting.  

Despite these difficulties, Gertrude succeeded. She designed a number of AC and DC motors and towards the end of her career specialised in the design of exciters. Her machines were used at Battersea and Croydon power stations and in the (then) largest synchronous condenser set in Victoria, Australia.

She was, however, always modest about her achievements, 'I did nothing beyond what was done by every man coming into the office', and appreciative of the support she had received. She claimed that few professional engineers opposed her career - she was 'cheered' by the Council when she applied for student membership - though most of her supporters kindly informed her that everyone else would object. 

'I was told that if I was seen by a customer, we would lose the orders from them; that if I gave any information to the drawing office, the draughtsmen would walk out! that no woman would ever be able to be a salesman and that no woman would ever go out on a job - and much more on the same lines.' She went on to prove all these unknown detractors wrong, and on her death in 1961 was celebrated as a 'true pioneer'.

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