We know of very few 19th-century female engineers, not least because for a woman to ‘get on’ in the field she needed to be far more than just an engineer. Sarah Guppy was just that.
Sarah Guppy had the three things that were essential in the early 19th century for a woman to be taken seriously in the very male world of engineering – money, an excellent education, and social contacts. The daughter of a wealthy brass founder and sugar importer, she grew up surrounded by the prosperous new class of Bristol merchant keen not only to flaunt their new wealth, but to ‘improve’ the lot of the people of Bristol and the country in general.
Having married Samuel Guppy, a builder of agricultural machinery, she immediately immersed herself in his trade, helping to run the business and negotiating contracts but also turning her hand to the practicalities of engineering.
Samuel had fingers in many pies, from nail manufacture to the sale of tea urns, and Sarah seems to have taken an interest in it all. Success came quickly when Samuel’s interest in a new method for producing flat-headed nails led to a contract to provide copper versions for attaching anti-fouling copper plates to the hulls of ships. Sarah took charge of the negotiations, making the Guppys between £20,000 and £40,000 – roughly £2-4m in today’s money.
Whether she was involved in the manufacturing process itself is less certain, but her practical interest in engineering became very clear in March 1811 when she patented “a new mode of constructing and erecting bridges and rail-roads without arches or sterlings, whereby the danger of their being washed away by floods is avoided”.
Her idea was to create a type of suspension bridge whereby a trackway across a river – in this case the unspanned Avon gorge – was suspended on chains held taut between piles driven into each riverbank, thus removing the need for piers in the river which might be washed away.
Not being one to simply create paper designs, she promptly went about raising subscriptions for such a bridge at Hotwells, producing a detailed model to demonstrate the effectiveness of her design. Sadly, despite her own investment in the project, the bridge was never built.
Not one to be disheartened, Sarah threw herself into the new ‘improving’ atmosphere of the era, dashing off letters to Lord Liverpool, suggesting reform of the Smithfield meat market, and proposing a recycling scheme for piles of manure that lined the turnpike roads. Nor had she given up on invention, taking out a patent for what might be considered the forerunner of the Teasmade – a coffee and tea pot that also steamed the breakfast eggs and kept the toast warm.
Sadly, her own family life proved less than happy. Samuel became estranged from his dynamic wife who was equally at home corresponding with members of the government, discussing plans with the great engineers of the day or working in his metal goods warehouse. Sometime in the 1820s Samuel appears to have left Sarah and wound up his business, dying shortly after.
Having inherited the family house and the residue of Samuel’s estate, Sarah went straight back to work, this time patenting a new bed designed to reduce dust collection and improve ventilation. Always keen to improve every aspect of her inventions, this bed also included under-mattress storage and even an exercise machine for those unwilling or unable to rise from her ingenious device.
Nor had she forgotten bridges. She became an enthusiastic proponent of the Clifton Suspension Bridge plan as well as allowing Thomas Telford free use of her patents for safe pile-driving in his construction of the Menai Straits bridge.
Befriending Isambard Kingdom Brunel, she became a shareholder in the Great Western railway, energetically writing to the board with suggestions such as planting trees to consolidate unstable railway cuttings. Her son Thomas later worked informally with Brunel providing ideas for his great marine projects: the SS Great Western and SS Great Britain.
After seven years of widowhood and now aged 67, Sarah married again, this time to one of the partners in the Bristol Mercury newspaper. The match was widely commented on at the time, her husband Richard Coote being 28 years her junior. It proved an unfortunate match as Richard was a gambler who soon spent his wife’s fortune. However, he did not dissipate her ambition. Even as her once substantial fortune dwindled, she continued to patent new ideas, ranging from the everyday – improved fire hoods and candle holders – to new methods for caulking wooden ships.
She died aged 81 in 1852 with just £200 to her name.
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