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A survey of some materials used for balloon, airship and aircraft coverings

The gas envelopes and outer coverings for early hot air and gas balloons, airships and aircraft were made from a wide variety of natural fabrics with or without a similarly wide variety of coatings. Later on, the march of progress produced artificial fibres and coatings. This paper will examine the origins and properties of the different animal and plant sources of the materials that made such flight possible.

The lecture will also delve into what is known of the women who did most of the actual work. From the earliest days of balloons and airships, women’s expertise was central to their construction, starting with the Weinling family who, in the 19th century, were the first women employed by the UK government in technical work. The Weinlings introduced the use of cows’ guts for the internal gas envelopes for military balloons and airships. These are stories almost unknown even to aviation enthusiasts more familiar with the famous male designers or even the famous female aviators, but without these women’s work none of the lighter-than-air aviation and much of the later heavier-than-air aviation would have happened.

About the Lecturer

Dr Nina Baker has had a varied career, having become a merchant navy deck officer on leaving school and later receiving an engineering design degree in her 30s, from the University of Warwick. She then gained a PhD in concrete durability from the University of Liverpool. She has lived with her family in Glasgow since 1989, working variously as a materials lecturer in further education and as a university research administrator and, until 2017, as an elected city councillor.

Now retired, her interest in promoting STEM careers for girls has led her to become an independent researcher, mainly specialising in the history of women in engineering. She is Deacon of the Incorporation of Hammermen of Glasgow for 2022-2023. She has been a Deputy Lieutenant in the Glasgow Lieutenancy since 2017 and was appointed an OBE in the 2023 New Year’s Honours’ list, for services to the history of women in engineering.

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