Miss Lydia “Rose” Gould Weld

The term ‘Renaissance Woman’ seems to describe Miss Lydia “Rose” Gould Weld to a tee. Consider this: Weld was one of the first women to graduate with an engineering degree from any college in the United States. In 1903, the then-male bastion, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), awarded her a degree in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, a first for that school. The same year, she was accepted as a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). Weld began her long and fascinating career here in Newport News at the shipyard.

Lydia “Rose” Weld, (1878-1962), ca. 1907, PP1539. Gift of Miss C. W. Evans.
Lydia “Rose” Weld, (1878-1962), ca. 1907, PP1539. Gift of Miss C. W. Evans.

Born in 1878 in Boston to a well-known, wealthy family, Lydia (“Rose”) had a twin sister, Julia, called “Violet.” To help tell them apart, a pink ribbon was tied on Rose’s wrist, and a purple one about Violet’s. The Welds traveled extensively, spending winters in the South and summers on Cape Cod. They visited Virginia often, enjoying the James River from a houseboat. Rose Weld was a good tennis player, an avid baseball fan, and an ardent stamp collector. The twins were schooled by governesses and attended finishing school as preparation for college.

Rose Weld was accepted at Bryn Mawr. Her aptitude for Mathematics was undisputed, but her spelling – well, not so much. She resented that she would be required to take an extra English class before being admitted. Some of her male friends encouraged her to apply to MIT instead, which she did, despite her mother’s protest. A professor there told Mrs. Weld not to worry – surely the strenuous manual labor required of the program would take its toll on Rose and she would quit. That only spurred this determined young woman further, and in 1898, she entered MIT. Fully engaged in her engineering coursework, Weld also learned blacksmithing and locomotive design. Busy with her studies, Weld paid little attention to her wardrobe. When required to attend some fashionable function, she turned to her twin sister, who supposedly rented her an evening gown for the occasion.

Her credentials earned Weld a position as a draftsman at Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company in its engineering division in 1903. One of only five “charge men,” her duties involved getting out finished plans of all machinery installed on naval ships, requiring exact tracing and careful inspection of ships. She worked at the yard for 14 years until 1917, when she had to resign due to a chronic bronchial condition.

A 1962 Daily Press feature story, written by Weld’s friend, Miss Cerinda Evans, librarian emeritus of The Mariners’ Museum Library, states:

“In an area held to be almost exclusively masculine, one of the most illustrious and industrious employees of the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company of yesteryear was a female graduate naval architect and marine engineer. … When this remarkable young woman arrived at the Newport News yard, she was placed in charge of the Tracing Department, and given a variety of other jobs as her ability became known. She was required to do some inspection and gave amusing accounts of going down into dark holds with a lighted candle (no electricity), and scrambling around trying to find the tops of boilers. Skirts were ankle length and there were no pants or slacks in those days! Miss Weld took keen interest in all work going on in the yard and formed many warm friendships, coaching one young draftsman in higher mathematics which enabled him to obtain a better position. When making an address at a M. I. T. graduation, the president of the Newport News Shipyard {Calvin Orcutt} referred to Miss Weld as the Institute’s first woman graduate in engineering and spoke with admiration of her work in his shipyard. Miss Weld regarded Newport News as her home and took a part in community activities. She became a communicant of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and a teacher in the Church School. She was fond of tennis and played an excellent game, and was often seen at baseball games. When the war started, however, with the work of war committees and the shipyard, little time was left for recreation. But whenever a fire alarm sounded, be it in the middle of the night, Miss Weld was up and away,” much to the amusement of her friends and colleagues.

After leaving Newport News, she was never one to be idle. From 1918 to 1933, she managed 320 acres of her brother’s 600-acre California ranch. Weld was involved in the League of Women Voters, the Right to Work Campaign, and MIT alumni activities. She also helped establish the office of the Emergency Fleet Corporation on the West Coast, living in San Francisco for a few months.

When she heard of the attack on Pearl Harbor and that the US was again at war, Weld announced, “I must get back to work, in spite of being over 60.” She became a ground observer from a 40-foot tower at Cypress Point, working the 4:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. shift. Since she had been away from shipbuilding for more than 24 years, she decided to take a refresher course in engineering. However, Stanford refused her application saying she would be wasting her time. Undaunted, she then enrolled in an airplane design course at UC-Berkeley.

Moore’s Dry Dock Company in Oakland, California, then recruited Weld as senior draftsman. This yard built 15 naval vessels and 25 C-2 freighters. Miss Cerinda Evans reported in the Daily Press of Weld’s work during World War II:

“Some of the freighters were named for famous old mansions in Virginia. Carter Hall, for instance and photographs of the buildings were sent to Miss Weld from The Mariners’ Museum Library at Newport News. Miss Weld would have photographs framed and present them to their respective ships which pleased both the shipyard and the ship officials. Occasionally, Miss Weld would go on a trial trip of one of the freighters.”

The firm’s only engineer, Weld remained at Moore Dry Dock Company until she retired (again!) in 1945. Unfortunately, in 1961, she developed a serious heart condition that slowed her down quite a bit. She moved to San Francisco, continuing to cast her vote in elections and visiting friends in Carmel when she was able. Spirited until the very end, after joining in festivities celebrating the New Year, Miss Weld retired to her room, asking for her nurse, who tried to help remove Weld’s shoes. “No,” she said, “Leave them alone, I always said I wanted to die with my boots on.” She died a few minutes later on January 5, 1962, at age 84. She is buried in the Weld family plot in Forest Lawn Cemetery near Boston.

“So be my passing!

My task accomplished and the long day done,

My wages taken, and in my heart

Some late lark singing,

Let me be gathered to the quiet west,

The sundown splendid and serene,

Death.”

— William Ernest Henley (1849–1903)

Start Spreading the News
(Pre-internet Age)

Lydia Rose Weld lived in an age in which the technological wonder of the telegraph truly revolutionized the newspaper industry. At first, members of the press were threatened by this technology. Yet eventually, they came to see it as a way to positively impact business, commerce, politics, and the newspaper industry. The world suddenly became much smaller as telegraph lines crossed the globe. No longer were newspapers confined to cover only “local” news, but stories of national and international importance could also be reported. Newspapers could now have reporters on assignment who sent their work back to their newsrooms. News syndicates formed, like The Associated Press, making the sharing of resources and content an efficient way of operating and distributing news, as well as adding value to each property.

Headlines about the pioneering Miss Weld appeared in newspapers, coast to coast. This “Boston Girl” who made her way to Newport News was featured in many stories. It is clear in the pre-internet age, interesting news about interesting people found its way to the people near and far. And for that, we have the telegraph to thank.


Sources

Daily Press, “Woman Graduate Naval Architect Enjoyed Illustrious Career at Local Shipyard,” Cerinda W. Evans, September 2, 1962.

Elsie M. Duval Typescript, “Miss Lydia Gould Weld,” The Mariners’ Museum, MS0456.

Lydia G. Weld Papers, MC 570, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Institute Archives and Special Collections, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

MIT alumni magazine, Technology Review, 1962, Weld tribute and obituary.

Newspaper clippings courtesy of Newspapers.com.