Adventures in Aeronautical Design: The Life of Hilda M. Lyon by Nina Baker, reviewed by Hannah West
The aircraft control systems familiar to today’s aircrew and engineers contain anti-phugoid software based, in part, on Hilda Lyon’s research on longitudinal dynamic stability. Her ‘Lyon shape’ for submarine hull design has influenced US submarine design from the 1950s onwards. Had Hilda Lyon’s life not been cut short at the age of 50 by an operation in 1946, she would surely have gone on to pioneer even greater innovations in aeroelasticity and aircraft stability. And yet, as a female former naval air engineer myself, I had never heard of Hilda Lyon and am consequently grateful to Nina Baker for this concise and thorough chronology of her life.
The book opens with her upbringing in Market Weighton, East Yorkshire revealing a childhood curiosity that was so apparent even in her early education. In documenting Hilda’s career path, the reader gets a real sense of how her knowledge and experience accumulates, as she moves between organisations and projects. Even her work on the, subsequently scrapped, R101 airship became one of her most cited pieces of research and offered this mathematician the chance to pick up some much-needed practical skills. Surrounded by engineers she recalls how she ‘learnt to understand and speak the engineering language, though doubtless with a strong mathematical accent’ (p.10).
The shadow of both world wars hung over her career as the loss of male mathematicians and scientists in the Great War most likely the driving factor for her employment in the ‘RAE [Royal Aircraft Establishment] alongside ‘many high-calibre women in its civil service research staff’ (p.35). And the award of a Mary Ewart scholarship enabled Hilda to spend a year researching in Gottingen, Germany in 1933, during increasingly tense times as the Nazis were on the rise, and subsequently returning in 1945 as one of the technical experts sent to find out about German aeronautical research and practice.
In chronicling this important but forgotten history, Nina Baker gives a real sense of how the book was researched, explaining where certain archives, records and anecdotes were encountered which adds a charming connection with the author which will be both appealing and encouraging to fellow archivists and historians. Above all, her inclusion of Hilda Lyon’s voice, whether through the words of her 1944 speech to the Women’s Engineering Society (included in full and alongside a list of her publications as an appendix) or even simply the images of her thesis title page or report sketches and graphs, enliven the memory of pioneering Hilda.