The WES Time Capsule

Did you know that one of the Tideway tunnelling machines used in London is named after Rachel Parsons who is one of the founding members and first president of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES)? During the WES centenary year, which started in June 2019, I was asked to deliver a talk to the Tideway project on international women in engineering day which is the 23rd of June. Rachel was to be the focus of the talk so that the team at Tideway could understand the person behind the name plate on the tunnel machine i.e. who she was and what she did back in 1919. In researching for this talk I discovered that Rachel was a fascinating individual who was part of high society, owned several racehorses but more importantly was a pioneering engineer. Her father Charles Parsons was the inventor of the steam turbine engine which transformed transatlantic sea crossings. This was a major milestone in international travel. It was Rachel who managed their engineering business when her brother went away to fight in the first world war.

It is interesting to note that one of the key objectives of WES was to increase the number of women in engineering. I do wonder how impressed that first cohort of pioneering women engineers would be given that we are still struggling 100 years later to still increase the number of women in engineering (just 14.5% in 2021).

A number of diaries from this time were discovered that are being transcribed. Apparently, these make for fascinating reading setting out the trials and tribulations of the headstrong pioneering women who held prominent positions as the menfolk went off to the First World War. Amy Johnson, the first women to fly solo from London to Australia, was amongst these amazing women. For more information about these extraordinary people check out the WES heritage trail.

This got me thinking about the future and what our sister engineers in 100 years’ time would think about what we are doing today. It gave me the idea of creating a time capsule of material that would be held for 100 years for the WES board to open at the bicentennial celebrations in 2119.

The launch
I secured agreement from the board of trustees who thought this was an exciting idea and the time capsule project was launched at the national centenary conference in February 2019. I put out a call for materials, papers, articles, letters and messages for our sisters in the future to discover. I was delighted that the project was well received and started to gather material. The IET archivists provided me with excellent advice about the sort of materials that really work. For example they have materials held on floppy discs and other IT items which are no longer accessible. Ironically they have other diaries that are written with pencil which have stood the test of time.

All sorts of exciting materials have now been gathered, which include letters from people like Emma Howard Boyd, Chair of the Environment Agency addressed to her future counterpart. At the WES students’ conference, postcards were written by delegates with predictions and messages. Other articles, journals and artefacts have been included such as the award winning marketing tool Lottie doll plus a 3D printed sphere of the WES logo. I wrote an article at the time thinking that Brexit was a key topic of interest, given the past negotiations that led to the formation of the European Union and the fact that the UK had decided to leave. Little did I know that the COVID-19 pandemic was just around the corner and would be a significant event. I think our sisters of the future would be very interested in how the business world has been impacted with the advancement of IT equipment that now routinely facilitates virtual working across the globe. I think they would also be interested in the impact on working parents, home schooling, and the impact it had on working mothers who have been recognised as being particularly disadvantaged as a consequence of COVID-19.

Sealing Ceremony
Given that the centenary year ran from June 2019 to June 2020 it was originally anticipated that the time capsule would be given to the IET archive in late 2020. Having attempted to arrange a formal sealing ceremony on several occasions we have finally made it. Asha Gage the IET archivist has done a fantastic job in cataloguing all the material. Those present at the sealing ceremony were Dawn Childs, Elizabeth Donnelly, Asha Gage, Helen Close and Sally Sudworth.

I would love to be a fly on the wall when the Board of Trustees in 2119 finally get to open the time capsule. I hope they enjoy what they find.

Dawn Childs, WES President

Elizabeth Donnelly, WES CEO

Helen Close, WES Heritage Officer

Asha Gauge, IET Archivist

Sally Sudworth, WES Fellow and CEG Chair