“If they could sentence me for thinking, I would have been sentenced for life”

This Ada Lovelace Day I’d like to introduce you to Laura Ann Willson of Halifax.

The way into this tale, the loose thread that first attracted my attention, is a 1920s advertisement. But tugging that thread a little, Laura Willson’s story just gets better and better. Her achievements, it seems, are so diverse that no one website has hitherto woven them together in one place.

The ad shows a property developer with keen interests in engineering and the conditions of working class life. Laura Wilson combined these passions by providing affordable homes, ready-made for the latest gas and electricity-powered labour-saving devices.

These were homes fit for heroes. Some of the houses still stand today, plain and solid, nearly 90 years on: “modern, attractive, durable”, planned and priced to bring the garden city ethos to ordinary working families.

Besides being the very first woman member of the Federation of House Builders, Laura Willson was one of seven founder subscribers, and served as President, of the Women’s Engineering Society.

The WES still exists with the following aims:

to promote the education of women in engineering sciences and other  skills, the better to fit women for the practice of engineering;

to advance the education of the public concerning the study and  practice of engineering among women; and

to relieve poverty amongst women who are or have been professional or technician engineers or technologists in allied sciences or educated in science or technology or in the art and techniques of engineering and allied sciences or in other disciplines considered by the Council to be complementary, their dependants and (if they are deceased) their former dependants.

If these aims appear now to be uncontentious, remember that at the time of the society’s foundation in 1919, they were highly incendiary. Laura Willson and her co-founders were making a stand for their right to remain in trades previous reserved for men – only briefly opened up to them by the crisis of the First World War.

Because when Laura Willson saw an opening, she took it, bringing her comrades along with her. Note the “MBE” on the property advertisement, one of the first ever awarded. The 1917 citation reads: “Organiser of Women’s Work in Munitions Works in Halifax”.

In a time of crisis the women of Yorkshire answered the call of their country to take up the dirtiest, riskiest jobs, including the filling of shells with live explosives. The number who lost their lives went unappreciated for many years because factory accidents were hushed up to maintain morale.

Here’s Laura Willson pictured in happier times, circa 1912, with her husband, George, also a self-made engineer, and their young daughter.

But rewind just a few more years and we find the same Laura Willson in a different context, her organising talents not always so welcomed by the authorities.

In 1907, as a member of the Women’s Labour League and the Women’s Social and Political Union, she took part in a weavers’ strike and was arrested on a charge of ‘violent and inflammatory speech’.

Given the choice of two weeks’ imprisonment or a 40 shilling fine, she picked prison, becoming one of the first two suffragettes to be locked up in Yorkshire. On leaving Leeds’ Armley Prison, Laura Willson said:

“If they could sentence me for thinking, I would have been sentenced for life. I went to gaol a rebel, but I have come out a regular terror”.

Contrary to the common picture of the genteel suffragette, Laura Willson did not come from middle class stock. She lacked formal education, having started work aged just 10 as a “half-timer” in a West Yorkshire textile mill.

Yet she went on to be an effective and celebrated labour organiser, war hero, engineer, house-builder and pioneer of new technology. Any one of these achievements would make a person noteworthy. This amazing Yorkshirewoman combined them all.

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

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Finding Lizzie Le Prince

Cutting edge artists have always looked to advances in science for new materials and techniques. But where our innovations centre on digital media and information technology, the crossover science of the Victorian era was chemistry. We owe today’s rich visual culture to the pioneers who mastered the interactions of chemicals, minerals, ceramics, celluloid and light.

Lizzie Le Prince was the daughter of Sarah and Joseph Whitley of Leeds. She trained under Carrier-Belleuse at the Sèvres pottery in France, and in 1869 she married Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince, also a student of pottery. Louis had been instructed by Louis Daguerre, inventor of the Daguerreotype, and specialised in applying photographic techniques to pottery and brass.

The Le Princes settled in England where Louis started work for the Whitley family brass-founding business. It’s clear that the marriage was a true partnership. They both joined the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society. Together they ran the Leeds Technical School of Art from their townhouse in Park Square, providing training in materials which were literally the new media of their age. Lizzie records that in Park Square Louis began experimenting with “moving photographs” and the best materials for films.

In 1881 the couple moved to New York where Lizzie taught art at the Institute for the Deaf. Louis is said to have projected his first moving pictures on the walls of that building. Lizzie is described as “a splendid helpmate”. In October of 1888, back in Lizzie’s parents’ garden in Roundhay, was recorded the world’s oldest surviving motion picture. The dating is precise because the pictures show Lizzie’s mother who died just a few weeks later.

By 1890, the Le Princes were ready to go public with the invention, well ahead of rivals including the Lumière brothers and American Thomas Edison. Lizzie had by this time founded the New York Society of Ceramic Arts and held regular meetings in Manhattan’s Jumel Mansion. Assisted by her son Adolphe, she began preparing for a public unveiling in New York. It should have been a grand occasion securing Louis’ place in history as the inventor of the the cinema.

But Louis never arrived back in New York. He was last seen at Dijon, boarding a train to Paris. Wild rumours surrounded his disappearance and Lizzie suspected foul play. She believed competitors including Edison himself had wanted her husband out of their way.

Continue reading Finding Lizzie Le Prince

Why I took part in Ada Lovelace Day

Last month’s Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology, was based on the insight that women need to see female role models more than men need to see male ones. I was pleased to help meet that need in a very small way, with a short post about 18th Century venture capitalist Elizabeth Montagu.

At the time I tried to keep my personal pontification to a minimum. It’s hard for men to address this topic without sounding patronising. Anyway, on the day itself many others were making the case for higher visibility of women in technology far more eloquently than I ever can.

But this post from Paul Walsh, trailing a Techcrunch Europe panel on the subject of women and start-ups, prompted me to speak up more directly. In Paul’s opinion:

… the books of males vs females doesn’t need to be balanced in favour of more females. Why? Well, because there are plenty of females in tech and those that aren’t, don’t want to be. Ok, so there might be a small percent who would like to be in tech, but don’t make it. But can’t the same be said for any industry?

Are we trying to balance the books to encourage more males to become nurses?

To which I reply the following (originally posted as a comment on Paul’s blog):

Of course there are some very talented and successful women in our industry. That’s not in doubt. It’s not so much that there are too few women in the tech sectors as that there are too many men! Look around you at most tech conferences and you’ll see mainly male audiences listening mainly to other men.

This is not just bad because women are missing out on opportunities (though I believe some are) but also because, in the words of David Ogilvy, “diversity is the mother of invention.” We are all missing out on the creativity and customer-centricity that a more diverse culture would engender. Think, for example, of how long the games industry remained stuck on the demands of a small power user niche while the needs of the much bigger casual user segments went unmet. What other business opportunities might be there for the taking right now?

The nursing analogy is an interesting one. Why not doctors, one might ask, and how much by nature, how much by nurture? (And yes, I do think men should be encouraged to consider nursing as a career!) Either way, if, as I think [Paul is] suggesting, there are deeply engrained differences between men and women then there’s a clear imperative for us to capitalise on those differences.

That means taking active steps such as ensuring that girls can see strong female role models in our industry, as it seems they might in medicine. It means making work more compatible with family life (from which men also stand to benefit). It means changing our business culture so women’s voices can be heard, and their contributions recognised and rewarded equally with those of men.

The conversation will be more profitable as a result.