by Stuart Burroughs
Sarah Guppy has been much in our thoughts recently – born in 1770 she was not only the first woman to patent a bridge, she also developed a range of other domestic and marine products – including an improved candlestick and an urn which boiled eggs.
In recent times she has been incorrectly credited with the design of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge. She patented her ideas for a chain bridge in 1811 (before the announcement of the first competition for a bridge across the Avon Gorge) but this design was never realised.
Sarah Guppy was very selfless in her invention process and cared more for the greater good of the public than for her own personal gain or credit. For example, while she contributed significantly to the design of Thomas Telford’s Menai Bridge, Sarah waived the fees for Telford’s use of her ideas.
I am often asked about the contribution of women during the industrial period of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries and it is not, I feel, that many women didn’t play their part in the commercial development of Bristol and Bath but that they left little trace.
Not least the contribution of every wife, daughter, and mother in supporting their husbands and the management of households – an often overlooked and arduous labour – let alone all those women who worked in industry, domestic service, or agriculture for which they were paid, only to come home to a second job, for which they were not.
In the case of inventors, industrialists and businessmen of every kind, the support and advice of women, whether related to the men or not, has always been an unrecognised element in any success and a comfort in time of failure. I am sure we can all call to mind circumstances we can recognise.
In the case of Sarah Guppy, as we know, we have a combination of invention, drive and confidence which makes her, with hindsight and in her own time, a worthy pioneer and an unstoppable force – to whom male inventors might be compared. We should hope her restored memorial and the attention that her work is now attracting will inspire women of our own time, with the same inventive flair.