Unsung Heroes of Engineering: Black History Month Tribute by Turan Daspan

As Black History Month 2023 draws to a close, I find it fitting to reflect on some remarkable individuals whose contributions to the field of engineering have inspired countless others. These pioneers have shown us that determination, innovation, and courage can lead to groundbreaking advancements in society, despite the challenges they faced. Today, I would like to share the stories of three extraordinary engineers who have inspired me and had a profound impact on our world.

Alice H. Parker: Revolutionising Home Heating

Alice H. Parker’s legacy in engineering is etched in the history of home comfort. In 1919, she was granted a patent for her groundbreaking invention, the “Heating Furnace.” Unlike traditional central heating systems, Parker’s design allowed cool air to be drawn into a heat exchanger, heated through natural gas combustion, and distributed through individual ducts to different areas of a house. This innovation introduced “zone heating,” enabling precise temperature control in various parts of a building.

What set Parker’s invention apart was her use of natural gas, a novel and more efficient approach compared to coal and wood heating systems of the time. Despite the limited information available about her personal life, Parker’s contribution to engineering has significantly impacted the way we heat our homes today.

Elijah McCoy: Master of Lubrication

Elijah McCoy’s name is synonymous with innovation and precision engineering. He held over 50 patents, with his most famous invention being the automatic lubricator for steam engines. In the era when steam engines were the heartbeat of industry, frequent stops for oil lubrication were a major source of inefficiency.
McCoy’s ingenious solution involved a graphite lubricator that continuously supplied oil to super-heated steam engines as they operated. A piston driven by steam pressure released oil from an oil-filled chamber, ensuring smooth and uninterrupted operation.

Born to former slaves in Ontario, Canada, McCoy’s journey to becoming an engineer was not without obstacles. Racial discrimination hindered him from working as an engineer, but his inventions and perseverance led to the creation of the Elijah McCoy Company. The quality of his lubricators became so renowned that engineers insisted on having “The Real McCoy” in their machinery, a phrase we still use today.

Lilian Bader: Breaking Barriers in the Skies

Lilian Bader, born in Liverpool in 1917, was a trailblazer in a time when racial discrimination was pervasive. During World War II, she volunteered in the war effort, serving in the Navy, Army, and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI) canteen. However, she faced dismissal due to racial prejudice. Undeterred, Bader joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in 1941 and underwent training as an instrument technician. She was one of the first women in the Air Force to qualify in this trade.

Stationed at RAF Shawbury, Lilian worked tirelessly, inspecting and repairing aircraft instruments. Her dedication and skill led to her rise in rank to Acting Corporal. Despite facing racial discrimination, she proved that her abilities as an engineer were second to none.


These remarkable engineers, Alice H. Parker, Elijah McCoy, and Lilian Bader not only left a significant mark in the world of engineering but also inspired countless others to pursue their passions and make valuable contributions to society.
Their stories remind us that determination, innovation, and the pursuit of knowledge can break down barriers and lead to transformative changes in the world. As we celebrate Black History Month, we honour these individuals and the enduring legacy they have left in the field of engineering.

About the author

Turan Daspan is a Principal Instrument and Control Engineer at Apollo with a specialist knowledge of EPC projects, maintenance, and cyber security. She is a passionate STEM Ambassador, mentor, and pre-school supporter, actively involved in charity organisations with a vested interest in a number of Historical and Afro Crafts projects.