In March, the Royal Society ran an “edit-a-thon”, to create and improve Wikipedia entries for female scientists and engineers. It got me thinking about who the past heroines of acoustics might be. But as I went through a list of historical figures, Fourier, Helmholtz, Lord Rayleigh, I found it difficult to think of a female example. Do you have any suggestions?
Although there is still an imbalance between the number of male and female acousticians today, at least I can think of some examples of women at the top of their profession, including the current President of the Institute of Acoustics (Prof Bridget Shield) and the President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, Prof Anne Dowling (who works in aeroacoustics).
Feeling embarrassed that I couldn’t think of one famous female acoustician from history, I thought I’d do some research, and found three examples.
Germain (1776-1831) was a French mathematician who studied plate vibrations. She won a prize from the French Academy of Sciences for developing a theory to explain the vibration of flat and curved plates. Her biography in the Encyclopaedia Britannica sadly notes, ‘she worked on generalizations of her research but, isolated from the academic community on account of her gender and thus largely unaware of new developments taking place in the theory of elasticity, she made little real progress.’
At the BBC Radiophonic Workshop Derbyshire (1937-2001) found the ideal job to combine her expertise in maths, music and perception of sound. Within a few months of joining the workshop, she created her rendition of Ron Grainer’s Doctor Who theme. Grainer loved the recording, and asked “Did I really write this?” “Most of it,” replied Derbyshire.  BBC rules meant her work was hidden behind a number of pseudonyms, making her an unsung heroine of electronic music.
Lamarr (1914-2000) was a glamorous Austrian film star, often playing a provocative femme fatale. In collaboration with composer George Antheil Lamarr invented a system to make torpedoes go off course. The invention was based on piano rolls used to control pianos. The idea was impractical with the technology available then, but became feasible once transistors were invented in the 1950s. More importantly, the frequency hopping technique used paved the way for wireless communication systems.
Three examples of heroines of acoustics isn’t very many. Can you think of others? Please comment below.