Caroline Haslett (1895–1957)

From humble origins Caroline Haslett became a powerful advocate for the benefits that electricity could bring to people’s everyday lives, and in particular for the emancipation that it brought for women.

She was born in Sussex, one of five children of a railway signal fitter who was also a lay preacher and active in the co-operative movement. During the First World War when women moved into many jobs previously done only by men she became a clerk at the London office of the Cochran Boiler Company, founded in 1878 by James Taylor Cochran to make patent vertical boilers. In 1898 the company built a factory at Newbie near Annan in southern Scotland, together with housing for their employees. Caroline Haslett was able to undertake basic training in engineering at the factory, and used her knowledge and experience to advocate that electric power should be used to enable women to undertake jobs that hitherto had been reserved for men.

In 1919 she became first secretary of the Women’s Engineering Society, and in the same year founded and proceeded to edit a journal called of The Woman Engineer. She worked closely with Lady Katherine Parsons (1859-1933), wife of Sir Charles Parsons (1854-1931), who was herself a practising engineer. In 1924 at the World Power Conference in London she spoke eloquently on the benefits that might come from domestic applications of electricity, and at a subsequent conference in Berlin in 1930 she met Albert Einstein (1879-1955), and told the Berliner Stadtblatt that brilliant inventors were rarely good teachers and that there was a need for women to explain to woman how to use electrical inventions. Her visit led to the formation of a German Women’s Engineering Society, which was closed down by the Nazis soon after they came to power in 1933.

She became chair in 1932 of the Home Safety Committee in Britain, and in 1936 went to the United States where she saw the Edison Museum and power stations built by the Tennessee Valley Authority, and met Henry Ford (1863-1947). She was one of the founders of the Electrical Association for Women which sponsored an All-Electric House, Bristol which gained much publicity in 1935-36. She was the only woman member of the council of the British Institute of Management between 1946 and 1954, and in 1953 became the first woman chair of the British Electrical Development Association. She was the only woman member of a 20-person committee of the Institute of Electrical Engineers established during the Second World War that set post-war standards for domestic supplies introducing the familiar 13 amp child-safe plug and socket, B(ritish) S(tandard)1363. She became a trusted adviser on girls’ education, and for much of  her career at the Electrical Association for Women displayed in her office the quotation from Émil Zola (1840-1902): ‘The day will come when electricity will be for everyone, as the water of the rivers and the wind in the heavens. It should not be merely supplied but lavished, that men may use it at their wish as the air they breathe’.