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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Biplanes, Airships, and Submarines: A Talk with Dr. Nina Baker About the Legacy of Hilda Lyon.

One of the great things about writing this column is the fact that, from time to time, I get to talk with remarkable people about other remarkable people. Dr. Nina Baker is not only the person who wrote 2020’s Adventures in Aeronautical Design: The Life of Hilda M. Lyon, which filled a desperate hole in the literature of the history of early women aeronautical engineers, but has been at one time or another a merchant navy deck officer, a concrete durability researcher, a city councilor, a materials science lecturer, a STEM communicator, and an engineering historian. Overcoming the time difference between Scotland and California, we sat down for a chat about Baker’s research into Lyon’s life and work….

Dale DeBakcsy: So, when did you and Hilda Lyon first meet?

Dr. Nina Baker: I’ve been doing this work for coming up to twenty years now, and when I first started I was more interested in women who were in the construction trade, and women working in Scotland. I cannot remember exactly when I first came across Hilda Lyon, but several things will have come together. I was aware of her colleague Beatrice Schilling very early on, so I was aware there was a group of interesting people at the Royal Aircraft Establishment. A few years ago, the Women’s Engineering Society had its journal digitized but they couldn’t afford to have an index done, and I rather rashly said, “Oh, I’ll do a names index of all the women in it.” I thought that would be a few evenings’ work, and it took me three months. I had to read every page of every journal to do it and started to see interesting stories, and some of the profiles I’ve done over the years [for her women in engineering blog, which you can find here!] came directly out of that.

The trigger for the work I’ve done in the last few years was the people at the Farnborough Air Sciences Trust archives had all of her reports, which is not the case for everybody, and so I’d done a profile on her. Then, out of the blue, professor Barbara English contacted me from Beverley in Yorkshire saying that they’d got this money to do a special event for National Open Doors Weekend about 12 extraordinary women of Beverley, and she’d heard that I knew about Hilda Lyon, who was born near Beverley and educated at Beverly High School, and asked would I come and care to give a talk. I said, absolutely (anywhere for a train fair!) and this very lovely lady put me up in her beautiful house.

She had been instrumental in putting up a blue plaque in her town where Mary Wollstonecraft had lived and she explained how they’d done it and it sounded remarkably easy and actually inexpensive, and so I gave the talk but I had some time to spare so I went out to Market Wheaton, where Hilda was from, to see what I could see about what was left, and as a result of that I got to thinking wouldn’t it be nice to do a blue plaque? So, I do what I always do and wrote to the local newspaper to ask if anybody knew if there were any family members left, and out of that found that there was a local family member there and a more distant family member in Australia. The distant relative in Australia is also an engineer, and she has been using her retirement to really dig deep into her family history. Her family, the Lyon family, is related to the Scottish Bose-Lyons, which is the family of the late Queen Mother. So, she was going to go to Scotland, and she was going to go to Yorkshire, and I said, look, when you’re in Yorkshire, shall we meet up in Market Wheaton? So, we met up, and we hit it off immediately, and we arranged to meet up with some local history types, and it just went from there! I got more information through the family, which meant that we eventually had enough to make a little book plausible.

DD: It seems that, for our conception of what a small rural town in that time is, is that it would not have been usual for somebody who is the daughter of farmers and grocers to be sent to such a rigorously academic grammar school [as Beverley High School]. Was that a usual thing for that era?

NB: There were probably two maybe three good primary schools in the town dealing with the whole surrounding countryside. But she was exceptional, the family was prosperous. Back in the day, in the generation before her father, they were farmers and then they were small grocers but by the time she was a kid, they were really significant. Although there was only one shop in Market Weighton, they were supplying all around the countryside to other small towns and villages and isolated farms. Initially, they were delivering by horse and cart, and bicycles, later on by vans. They were pretty prosperous.

She had three older step-sisters, who didn’t do anything special. Her brother Harold just took over the family firm and I think ran it into the ground. I am told by Wendy, who is her great-niece, and from whom we have quite a lot of materials and the only photos of her, which is not very many, and they’re pretty murky, that her mother told her that she had heard from older ladies, that when Hilda was in the primary school in Market Weighton, Hilda had her hand up before any other children even realised what the question might be. Many people will have been in a class with somebody like that, and it must have been obvious from an early point. What I don’t know is if she got any scholarships to go to Beverley High School, but she was one of their very earliest pupils. It must have been clear to all concerned that she had to have a decent education.

DD: For that time, there is a question of, “How much are we going to educate our daughter, and to what end?” For some people it was, “We’re going to educate just to the level of being a good wife and mother,” vs “We’re going to educate her to have a career of some sort.”

NB: Whether there was any plan, I don’t know. By the time she was actually graduating from Cambridge with her math degree, World War I was over, and half the young available men dead. However, it’s a mistake to say she had no expectation of marrying for whatever reason because of the war. Because if you go back into the nineteenth century, to her mother’s generation, there was actually a greater shortage of men compared to women of marriageable age then there was after the War, and that was because the Empire sucked all the young men out of the country. We think of, “Oh, the last generation of possible husbands,” and it’s only partly true. She was not a great beauty, but lots of plain girls married. So, I don’t think there’s anything to read into that really, and certainly, if you ask me, I think Beatrice Schilling was a jolly sight plainer. But, I suspect for her, it was probably, “I can go to university and do maths, so I’ll do that, then I’ll think about what I’m going to do next.”

She probably thought she was going to teach, is my guess, which would have been a perfectly reasonable career plan for her and for her family. Indeed, a lot of women who later on became involved in engineering taught first, because that was an easy job you could get - secondary school assistant maths teacher - you could get that job straight out of university, especially if you did well at Cambridge. Lots of the people she would have known would have done that before coming to the Royal Aircraft Establishment. But because she was leaving while the war was still on, she was directed to her first job, as a technical assistant with the Siddeley-Deasy people because they were still working on war contracts.

She had a crash course at the air ministry on how to do airplane stress calculations, and then she was sent off to Siddeley-Deasy, and then she went to [aircraft manufacturer] Parnall to do more or less the same thing, before going to the airships. We know from the story that she related herself towards the end of her life, she said, “If I’d been planning things, I’d have gone from Cambridge to a technical college, and learnt some practical skills,” because she realized she didn’t “speak” engineering, she spoke mathematics, and she had to learn to speak the engineers’ language in order to tell them why the things she was suggested were good ideas.

DD: So, she had basically a pure, theoretical mathematics background?

NB: Well, there would have been some applied in it. The Tripos was a mixture of pure and applied, but she already realized that the applied was of more interest to her than the theoretical.

DD: After her first job, when she moves to Parnall, that was in 1920? By that time you have men coming back from the war, and in so many other industries, when the men come back, they just push the women out of the jobs they had held. Is [the fact that she retained her position] just a testament to how good she was, or was the early aeronautical industry uniquely more egalitarian?

NB: I think, obviously, she was good. They could probably pay her less. We don’t know that, but we can guess that it’s possible. Also, it’s possible that she was doing a job that hadn’t existed before the war. So, the infamous 1919 Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act, which unions had insisted upon as a condition of letting women into the factors, applied to work which had previously been done by a man. She may have been occupying a job that never existed before. Siddeley-Deasy, for instance, was a car company before the war. So, nobody could say, “Well, you’re taking this guy’s job,” because that guy had never been there.

The Royal Aircraft Establishment was a mixture of military and civil work. It was run by the government but always had a mixture of civilians and military people working there. And civilian companies would come and say, can you do the sums on this plane, or test this plane and see if it stands up? So, they had a constant flow of military work and civilian work always, right through it’s whole life.

The aviation industry was new, and it didn’t come with the baggage that the other branches of engineering did, and still have. The Royal Aeronautical Society was founded at the back end of the Nineteenth Century, admitted women from the get-go, whereas it took until around mid 1920s before the other institutions started to change their constitutions. Some of them took a while, and there were even court cases where women involved in engineering applied and were told, “No our constitution doesn’t permit this,” even though their constitution said “Person” [not “man”] and the institutions went to the trouble of employing lawyers to argue the case that “Person” does not include “Woman.”

So, the culture has a lot to answer for. To me, it’s quite interesting that both aviation and defense electronics, both new industries with no prior baggage, admitted women almost from the start. And it’s still the same - women engineers are still clustered in those two industries as compared to other branches of engineering.

She was a very bright woman at the right place at the right time. Other women were making a start in similar work - Frances Bradfield, Laticia Chitty, and indeed Beatrice Schilling. Beatrice was different in that she had a mechanical engineering degree from Manchester, but Hilda, and most of her colleagues, had math degrees, the vast majority of them.

DD: From 1920-1924, she is the only person doing stress analysis for the entire companies she was in?

NB: So it seems. It was not a big company - they were turning planes out in twos and threes, not in hundreds. All the airplane companies were like that- trying to see what worked. Some of the things she worked on, she said, never got built at all. The RAF changed its specifications, and something she’d been working on for months got put in the bin.

DD: In that short time, they had developed monoplanes, biplanes, racing planes, sea planes. It seems like, even if the stress analysis is something you can carry over, that it’s a lot of unique types of planes to have one person be the focal point for.

NB: It sounds like it, but she said, “This is all very well, but there’s nowhere for me to go. I can’t progress up into the design side.” So that’s why she moved.

DD: That was my next question - moving from airplane design to doing this transverse stress analysis in airships. It seems like a different bag of forces you have to deal with?

NB: Well, not really. It’s all triangles when it comes down to it.

DD: She said it was more interesting analysis to do, for airships.

NB: So it seems. I wouldn’t have thought the math was very different. My guess is that she was in a much different establishment, where she saw all this cutting-edge stuff being built.

DD: Yeah, I can’t imagine. When I was in high school, I went to CalTech with the idea of working at Zeppelin some day. That’s what I wanted to do! Well, anyway, another thing that I was curious about is, after the R-101 [one of Britain’s experimental airships that Hilda was working on] crashes, and it seems that Britain is going to get out of the airship game, she keeps on doing airship work, and goes over to MIT and goes to their wind tunnels and does work there, is there any indication that she was just so interested in the theoretical aspects of airship design that she kept going with it?

NB: It’s most unfortunate, because the R-101 crashed just as she was leaving for America. Her commitment to go to America was already in place. Airships were still being built, in America, so it probably wasn’t immediately obvious that airships had had it complete.

DD: Right, the Germans still had theirs going.

NB: The work she was doing, although it was on airships, it was as much about the practicalities of wind tunnel work and streamlining as it was about airships per se. Her thesis was all about working with airships shapes, and the shape she devised, the “Lyon Shape.”

The reason she went there to do it in the first place was that she realized that actually the results from wind tunnels weren’t born out in real life and she wanted to know why, and what came out of it was this change to the shape of airships.

DD: So, before then, if you look at airship design, you have that kind of cigar shape.

NB: Pointy at both ends.

DD: Pointy at both ends. And was the idea that wind tunnels had said that that design was the one that you wanted to go with, and then she kind of discovers otherwise?

NB: I’m not sure if they really understood streamlining that early on. To start, British wind tunnels were pretty crap compared to German ones. So, I think they thought “Pointed is best for streamlining.” She won’t have been the only person to discover that this teardrop shape is actually better, and that you can have a round front and everything is fine with regard to wind resistance. It’s very rare that one person discovers something on their own.

But, the reason that wind tunnel results she was experiencing weren’t accurate was that they hadn’t taken into account the effect of the turbulence between the blowing bit and where the model was. So, in between the blowing bit and the model there might be strings and struts and sticks and things to hold the model in place. So she was working with various baffles to try and overcome these problems. She then went on to Gottingen to work with Prandel, because he was the top man in both hydrodynamics and aerodynamics. And, interestingly, given the era he was working in, a supporter of women in science. A number of women worked in his department at a time when it wasn’t easy for women in Germany to do professional work.

I’ve tried to contact Gottingen, and they have hardly any archives, unsurprisingly. So, they’ve got no record of her or other women who might have been there then. It is possible that a woman she met in the very last months of her life, Joanna Weber, who came from Gottingen in the post war exploitation era, when we and you [the United States] tried to get everything and everybody we could get our grubby paws on, and was one of the very few women to be recruited during that era, had been doing her undergraduate math degree at Gottingen when Hilda was there, so they might have met each other at a women’s hostel there.

At the very end of the war, when teams were sent from Britain to Germany to check out what there was, Hilda went on the trip that went to Gottingen to assess their work. It doesn’t mention any names, but it mentions the field of work that we know Joanna Weber was the expert in.

DD: I wanted to hear a little bit more from you about the Royal Aircraft Establishment, that she joins in 1937. It seems like it is pretty uniquely welcoming for women engineers and mathematicians. Do we know why it seems to have been so chill?

NB: If we go back into the First World War, dealing with airplanes was divided between the army, navy, and air force, and the admiralty had its own research department, which employed quite a number of women, who went on to work at the royal Aircraft Establishment after it was all amalgamated there. In wartime it was, “Where the Hell can we get mathematicians from?” and they would have approached places like Oxford and Cambridge and asked, “Who are your best mathematicians? We don’t care what they look like.”

So, they had this wartime experience of women with good skills, and after the war the number of people the RAE could employ was cut. But once things started looking dodgy in Europe, they had to start ramping up again, and that came about in the late Twenties, so they were looking for people. In fact, they approached the Women’s Engineering Society, and made it known that they were looking for women mathematicians.

They were civil service posts, with women at most levels. We only have names for some of them, from archive letters and structural diagrams of departments. The lowest grade was technical assistant, and that was the lowest level of drawing office work, what in industry would be called the Tracers. But you could work your way up, and people did. People also entered as experimental assistants, for people with a bit of science behind them. A lot of the useful background that we get from the National Archives are letters from various heads of departments to the Treasury saying, “We’ve got this woman. She’s really good. There’s no place in the Establishment (what the Civil Service calls the number of people you have to have at each grade) for her, but she really deserves more money. Please can we give her an extra payment to keep her?”

They seem to have had quite a lot of women. During the early part of its life, the RAE actually built airplanes, and employed thousands of women on the building side - sewing bits of fabric, doping - no names for any of those. Later on th eindustry said, “This isn’t fair, you building airplanes on government money,” and they concentrated on the research side. But they had always had women, who had been in with the bricks since the 1880s, but interestingly, as the aviation industry had been developing, there are always women there as well, and there are industrial equivalents to Hilda in the big airplane companies. DeHavilland, which became hawker-Siddeley, and what we now call British Aerospace, had women who started as apprentices on the shop floor and worked their way up.

The RAE was a very pal-y sort of place, a lot of people lived in hostels on the site. The married people had rows of houses - have you seen the Jimmy Stewart film No Highway in the Sky?

DD: No, which is weird, because I love Jimmy Stewart.

NB: If you watch that, it was shot at the RAE, and is about the Comet airliner crashes, but the technical work is shot inside one of the big sheds in the RAE, and Jimmy Stewart and his colleagues live in these rows of married quarters. There were a lot of social things, tennis clubs, fishing clubs, orchestras, but that was the style in those days.

DD: During World War II, Hilda Lyon worked on longitudinal stability and gliding flight. Could you clarify what that is for folks who aren’t clear what sort of problems she was working with?

NB: Well, think of paper airplanes. Most paper airplanes just go like that [gesture of flying straight then immediately plummeting] - that is longitudinal stability that isn’t working. You want this straight and level flight. In the war years, we know some of the things she did. She was working on the stability of the Hawker Typhoon airplanes.

She published this paper on longitudinal stability and gliding flight. They didn’t literally mean gliding with no engines, but rather the idealized example of what happens if you were doing that but not falling out of the sky like a brick. What she was looking at was phugoid motion, which is where airplanes can get into a kind of standing wave, which can be fatal. The Boeing Max that fell out of the sky two or three years ago now, had very sophisticated modern software that’s been developed to help pilots deal with it, because by the time speeds get fast, it’s very hard for pilots to be actually flying a plane, which is why with jet fighters most of the flying is actually being done by the computer tweaking the control surfaces. She was looking at what do you have to do in terms of weight distribution to dampen out that phugoid motion.

What happens with phugoid flight is, as you go up, you start slowing down, which causes you to start falling down the gravity hill, which causes you to speed up, which causes you to start going up again, and you get stuck in this. What happened with the Boeing Maxs was that they made them longer to fit in more people, which meant they had to move the engines, and had to tweak the software to deal with the new location, but they didn’t train the pilots and didn’t test the sensors. So, the sensors were telling the pilot he was going up when he was actually going down, and so by the time he realized he had to do this whole sequence of routines to turn this software off, by which time he was nose-down in the water. So, that’s what they’ve been working on all this time.

This was the kind of thing she was working on, but she wasn’t the only person. But, nevertheless, that paper she wrote during the war and was published in 1944, is her most cited paper, and was obviously considered important.

DD: In that paper was she more detailing the mechanics of that phenomenon, or trying to figure out methods a pilot could employ to reduce it or engineering workarounds?

NB: She’s much more theoretical than that. She’s trying to dampen the effect. It’s the equivalent to first year physics at high school, when you put a weight on a spring and it goes boingy-boingy, what do you need to do to dampen that vertical pendulum effect? It’s highly mathematical, I don’t understand a word of it, unlike her master’s thesis where the explanation at the end of the shape she deduced is an absolute model of clarity of writing anybody could understand if they didn’t know a word of math.

DD: Yeah, that’s rare.

NB: It’s probably worth showing your senior students that pretty high end maths, at the end of the page full of Greek, can be turned into something anybody can understand? Because that is the trick, can you do what Schrodinger did and turn inconceivable ideas into a cat in a box?

Photo by Lovelacepullinger

DD: How did Hilda Lyon’s name fare since her death in 1946? Is she somebody who, before your book, was talked about much in aviation history?

NB: For a while, there was the Hilda Lyon Award for apprentices at the RAE for a few years, I think funded by her family or maybe her colleagues. But that petered out, and then the residual memory was on your side of the pond where the US Navy continued to refer to things as the Lyon Shape, for example in submarines. But, other than colleagues and friends and letters of condolence her family still have from when she died, she has not been particularly remembered. But some of the Cambridge colleges have been doing some archive work of their own, pulling out what they have about all sorts of women from that era. I wrote about her because we seem to be accumulating enough information to do that. Some of her colleagues, despite the fact we know what they did, we don’t have any of their reports, and that is really frustrating. I’d like to write about Frances Bradfield and Helen Grimshaw but we have almost nothing that they themselves worked on to look at. A lot of stuff vanished.

DD: So, what’s the next book going to be?

NB: Well, I ought to go back to something that got parked to one side, which is Dorothy Pullinger, the automobile engineer. When I first started all this, it came out of a female professor saying that if you can get me the name of a Scottish woman engineer, I can get it put on one of the lecture hall doors, and I went onto a search engine and put in Scottish Woman Engineer and spent a lot of time searching before finally I discovered that there was this woman Dorothy Pullinger whose father ran the Aerol-Johnson factory and we’ve got a lot of information about her because both her daughter and grand-daughter are still alive and they’ve got marvelous archives. Arguably, she did a lot less engineering than a lot of these women at the RAE, but on the other hand she’s quite well known, particularly in Scotland, because she worked in Scotland, and she was the first woman inducted into the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame. She was an interesting woman with an interesting story at an interesting time during the early development of cars and women’s opportunities. So, there’s probably a book in there.

DD: Yes, write that book!

At this point, Dr. Baker and I veered off into talking about women in science book collecting, which is our shared not-so-secret passion. And if you’re looking to start your own collection, why not start out with Dr. Baker’s book about Hilda Lyon, available here! She also has a blog about women in engineering and the research that has been done on them here, and if you want to shout out some questions to her about her work, she’s a powerful force on Twitter at @ninabake2.


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