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Women: The Magnificent Seven

Speaker: Barrie J. Yates

Tuesday, 21 March 2023

The guest speaker at the u3a Todmorden Members' Meeting on the 16th of March was Barrie J. Yates, who presented 'The Magnificent Seven'. Not the western, but seven women who made an impact over the past century and before.

First was Rosalind Franklin, born in 1920 in London, into a family that had arrived in Britain in the 18th century from Holland. Her family had become wealthy through banking and publishing. They became involved in providing scholarships, and other good works. At an early age Rosalind was good at memory games, and anything related to maths and figures. By the age of twenty-five, she had won both a degree and a PhD, and was the first person to identify the double helix, a term used to describe the physical structure of DNA. Rosalind's vital contribution and involvement wasn't acknowledged until years later.

Marie Curie was next on Barrie's list. She was born in 1867 in Warsaw and began her practical scientific training in that city at the 'Flying University', a clandestine enterprise that provided higher education. She subsequently moved to Paris where she continued her scientific research. In 1903, she shared the Nobel Prize for physics with Antoine Henri Becquerel, for developing the theory of Radioactivity, a term which Marie coined. Marie won another Nobel prize for discovering Plutonium and Radium, and later realised the potential for treating cancer by the use of radiation. This work resulted in her death in 1934 after her being exposed to, and working with, the materials she had discovered or invented.

Barrie then spoke about Hedy Lamarr, an Austrian-born American film actress and inventor, born in 1914. She was a beautiful woman who, in her teens, appeared in a film called 'Ecstasy'. Her part involved her appearing naked, and acting in scenes that she later regretted. Aged 18, she had already married a man in his mid-thirties, Fritz Mandl. He was involved in supplying arms to Hitler and Mussolini during the rise of fascism, and tried to tightly control his young wife. She left him in 1937, and subsequently arrived in America, appearing in many films for the rest of her life.

But her place on Barrie's list was for another reason. She was extremely intelligent and, during World War Two, heard about heavy shipping losses in the Atlantic Ocean and that the Germans were working on radio-controlled torpedoes which would improve their accuracy. She thought of, and proposed, a solution which became known as 'Frequency Hopping' – which involved changing the radio frequency guiding the torpedoes and diverting them from their target. She hired a scientist to work on and prove that this would work. But, because she had been born in Austria, the patent for her invention was seized by the US government, who regarded her as an 'enemy alien'. Despite this, she also helped the selling of millions of dollars' worth of War Bonds, which helped pay for the troops and equipment resulting in victory of the Allies. The inventions that originated from her idea are valued at thirty million dollars today.

Ada Lovelace, born in 1815, was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron. Her mother was aware of the behaviour and attitudes of her husband, and decided that Ada should certainly not follow in his footsteps, and should receive the best education in logic and science, from the age of four. Seven years later Ada had conceptualised a steam driven flying device. At the age of seventeen, she met Charles Babbage, recognised as 'the father of the computer'. Ada predicted that computers could do more than calculate numbers, recognising that they could be multi-functional – music, pictures, text, and sounds could be translated in digital form.

Barrie reminded the audience that the mobile phones, tablets and many other devices we use nowadays resulted from these early discoveries and experiments. Ada had another side to her character though. A compulsive gambler, she had to pawn the family's diamonds to meet her debts, and once lost over three thousand pounds betting on a horse – the same amount today would be over a quarter of a million pounds. She died from cancer at the age of thirty-six.

We heard about Beatrice Schilling, the daughter of a butcher. Beatrice was mechanically minded from an early age, being interested in collecting tools, and winning a national 'Meccano' competition. She bought herself a motorcycle at the age of fourteen and was able to dismantle and put it back together again. After leaving school, she worked for an electrical company for three years where her employer encouraged her to study electrical engineering. This she did, and gained a Bachelors, and Masters degree. She was also one of the very few people who won a gold star for completing a circuit at Brooklands' racetrack, in Surrey. The reason for Barrie's inclusion was her work in World War Two on Spitfires. The engines on these planes would flood, and then stall, when their pilots 'dived' during dogfights with the Luftwaffe. Beatrice devised a brass thimble with a hole in the middle (later further simplified to a flat washer), which could be fitted into the engine's carburettor without taking the aircraft out of service. The restrictor limited maximum fuel flow and prevented flooding, and may well have contributed to victory in the 'Battle of Britain'

Barrie's next member of 'the seven' was Amy Johnson. Born in 1903, Amy is well known as being the first woman to fly solo from London to Australia in six days. Before this, she had gained a bachelor's degree in economics, and worked as a secretary for a solicitor in London. She obtained a pilot's licence in 1929 and, with funds from her father, bought a De Havilland aircraft which she named the Gypsy Moth. Her record-breaking flight was in the following year. During the second world war, Amy was a ferry pilot, delivering aircraft from factories to where they were needed. She died on one of these flights on the 5th of January 1941 when the plane she was flying went down in the Thames Estuary. Subsequently, it was claimed that her plane was shot down in error, but this has never been officially acknowledged.

The final member of the seven was Gertrude Bell, possibly the least known of by our members. She was born in July 1868, and was the first woman to achieve a degree in Modern History at Oxford, and the first western woman to cross Arabia. She was skilled in photography, archaeology and map making. She was heavily involved in negotiations at the end of World War One, particularly in setting out the new borders after the end of the Ottoman Empire. Barrie showed a slide of Gertrude from this time alongside Churchill and T.E. Lawrence as these talks were going on. The discussions, and the 'Balfour Agreement', created new borders and a commitment to creating a country where Jewish people would be able to live. The agreement still has well known repercussions to this day. But what isn't as widely known is the presence, and influence of a woman at this pivotal time.

After a lively question and answer session, then a vote of thanks, the meeting ended.

The next Todmorden U3A Monthly Members Meeting will be on Thursday 20th April, open to all fully paid-up members at the Central Methodist Hall,Todmorden. The speaker for this meeting is Susan Rogers, with 'Easter island'.

Not yet a member? You can attend one talk free by requesting an invitation to this zoom event. We're always delighted to welcome new members. Contact details: website at www.u3atod.org.uk or email at info@u3atod.org.uk.

Many thanks to Colin Sanson for this report


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