Cambridge Science Centre


Cambridge innovators: Constance Tipper

Written on 24 Jul 2013 in Blog

“Give me liberty or give me death” said President Roosevelt at the launch of the first of a new, quick-build class of ships in September 1941. From then on known as Liberty Ships, these cargo vessels were used to carry supplies from the USA to the UK and Russia during World War II. However, they had a major problem. Fracture in the hulls of the welded (rather than riveted) ships, often caused the ship to break in two and leading to huge loss of life and cargo.

Women made many contributions to the war effort and Constance Tipper was no exception. Her discovery in Cambridge University’s engineering department was vital to solving the problem with the Liberty Ships and is still used in building and engineering today.

Tipper found that the cause of the fractures in the ships was not, as many thought, due to the welding, but because of the steel itself. She discovered that in the cold of the North Atlantic, the type of steel used for the ships became brittle, rather than ductile (able to bend or deform) hence the cracks. Thanks to her work, modifications were made to the ships allowing the vital supply route to remain open throughout the war. She was also the first person to use a scanning electron microscope to examine metals, and developed the Tipper Test which is still used to determine the brittleness of steel used in construction and manufacture.

Constance Tipper was a pioneering woman in a man’s world - she was the only female full member of the Faculty of Engineering, and continued consultancy work in the Barrow shipyards until well into her seventies. She is commemorated in Cambridge by a tree planted on her 100th birthday at her old college, Newnham.