ExpertiseBridges, Design, Structural, Water
Sarah Guppy was the first woman to patent a bridge
The first person to patent a hanging bridge for road and rail traffic
Patented an innovative method of protecting ships from barnacles
Why you might have heard of Sarah Guppy
Sarah Guppy is best known as the first woman to patent a bridge.
In 1811 Guppy took out a patent for ‘a new mode of constructing and erecting bridges and railroads without arches or sterlings whereby the danger of being washed away by floods is avoidable’.
A controversial figure
Though sparse in detail, Guppy's patent has led to claims that she was the inventor of the modern-day suspension bridge.
The allure of this narrative is irresistible, so much so that the majority of information available about Guppy celebrates her as the innovator of Thomas Telford’s Menai Suspension Bridge and Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge.
The misinterpretation of Guppy’s patent, which was encouraged by Guppy herself, has resulted in Guppy often being credited for an invention that was not hers to claim.
Despite the mythology surrounding her inventions and career, she was indeed a unique individual and a trailblazer in the world of engineering.
Her interest in engineering led to her taking out patents on several domestic appliances, including a precursor to the toaster.
This doubtless helped many women at a time when the domestic world was centerstage in most women’s lives.
The discovery that Guppy’s reputation as the true creator of some of the UK’s most famous structures is false, might at first seem to minimise her achievements.
But it must be remembered that during the Victorian era engineering was coming into its own, with professional standards only just beginning to be established.
As such, it was a challenging time for engineers to be recognised for their work, and even more so for a woman.
Guppy’s reputation is slippery in the context of her incorrect statements.
But her determination to be recognised in the engineering world, during a time it was very much a man’s world, is a significant achievement.
Sarah Guppy's education and career
Sarah Guppy was born in Birmingham in 1770 to a prosperous family.
Guppy was the middle child of the family, sister to two brothers, Richard and John.
She was in a fortunate position compared to many girls and women in the 18th century.
She received an excellent education and learned from the best around her.
Born Sarah Maria Beach, Guppy was born during the Industrial Revolution.
Her career trajectory is complex since much of her reputation rests on the belief that she patented suspension bridges and was ultimately responsible for the design of Thomas Telford’s Menai Suspension Bridge and Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Clifton Bridge.
Surprisingly, Guppy herself is likely to have encouraged these narratives.
Still, the truth of her patent is no less intriguing than the traditional narratives that laud Guppy as a pioneer of the suspension bridge.
Her first patent, titled ‘Bridge and Railroads’, was intended for Bristol’s River Avon.
She proposed a bridge with: ‘several strong metallick chains, parallel to and at suitable distances from each other’.
Above the chains, she suggested laying:
“Longitudinally and crosswise such fit pieces of timber, or iron, or other suitable material, as shall and may constitute a platform, which…shall afford a proper support for a road or pavement.”
Guppy’s proposal described a hanging bridge, which is made from rope or chain, with the deck resting on an underlying support system of chains.
This is opposed to the modern suspension bridge inaugurated by James Finley in 1801, which involves a deck hanging from an overhead suspension system.
The hanging bridge that Guppy describes in the patent had been used extensively in South America, China, and India, meaning that her patent did not suggest an innovative new design.
Building the UK’s first suspension bridge
In America, James Finley was responsible for building the first suspension bridge.
Its design, as described by engineering historian Julia Elton, was comprised of the following:
‘hanging a deck, via a series of stiff vertical hangers, below a suspending system using iron chains running over tall towers to their anchorages.’
The result was a bridge built with a robust enough structure to allow wheeled vehicles to travel across it.
Meanwhile, British engineers Captain Samuel Brown and Thomas Telford were developing similar designs in the United Kingdom.
In 1820, Brown completed the Union Bridge that spans the river Tweed.
It was the first bridge to be designed specially to carry traffic.
Telford followed Brown in 1826 with the completion of the Menai Bridge.
Guppy’s patent’s role in the Menai Bridge’s development became the subject of speculation due to a piece published in the Bristol Mercury in 1839.
The article referenced a letter written by Guppy in 1811, stating that the Menai Bridge was designed using Guppy’s patent:
“We understand that the Menai Bridge was constructed by permission (which was asked) on Mrs. G’s principle, and that she is one of the most liberal supporters of the bridge about to be erected across the Avon at Clifton”.″
As Guppy had been in partnership with William Henry Somerton, the proprietor of the Bristol Mercury, it seems plausible that the piece was written by someone in Guppy’s circle, perhaps even Guppy herself.
It’s been claimed that Guppy waived fees on Telford’s use of her patent for the public’s benefit.
But when we understand that Guppy never patented a suspension bridge, it becomes clear that she had no such claim on the Menai Bridge in the first place.
Patenting: from domestic to marine products
Guppy’s patents did not end with bridges, however.
In 1812, Guppy completed a second patent (No. 3549). The patent proposed a way of boiling eggs in a tea or coffee urn, with the ability to keep toast warm.
She also gained a contract with the Royal Navy worth £40,000 for creating a method to protect boat hulls from the growth of barnacles.
Perhaps most creative of all her inventions was a product she patented in 1831 – a bedstead that doubled up as an exercise machine.
The drawers beneath the bed could be used as steps for exercise, while bars suspended from the ceiling provided the opportunity for strength training.
In total, Guppy took out 10 patents in her career.
A Bristol icon
Given her out-of-the-box thinking and tenacity, Guppy is arguably an icon of Bristol, whose actual achievements, and contributions to the future of engineering have been sadly overlooked.
A campaign is currently underway in Bristol to commemorate Sarah Guppy’s lifelong achievements with a sculpture of her.
If the campaign is successful, the sculpture will be a great opportunity to finally shine a light on one of Bristol’s greatest forgotten female minds.
Her dedication to her patents and her desire to find engineering solutions to problems affecting everything from the domestic sphere to the world of commerce demonstrates the extent of Guppy’s will to leave her mark on the world.
For this alone, her accomplishments deserve to be celebrated and remembered.
Sarah Guppy is expected to be commemorated in Bristol, with a campaign to raise money for building a sculptor of her currently underway.
As patents are intellectual property, and women in the early 19th century couldn’t own property, Guppy made her patents in her husband’s name.
Guppy borrowed more books from The Bristol Library Society than any other female borrower in the years up to 1811.
Clifton Suspension Bridge
Construct a bridge over the Avon gorge to speed up crossing times
Sarah Maria Beach was born to a family involved in the brass and sugar trade.
She later went on to marry a successful Bristol merchant, Samuel Guppy, in 1795.
The couple were a fixture on the Bristol and Clifton social scene.
Guppy bore six children, including a son, Thomas Richard Guppy, an eminent businessman who ran The Friars Sugar Refinery in Bristol alongside his older brother Samuel.
Thomas Guppy was introduced to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, whom he worked with on projects including the SS Greater Western.
Guppy was widowed in 1830 and went on to marry Richard Eyre-Coote in 1837.
By this time, Sarah was 67 years old, and Coote was almost 30 years her junior.
The marriage to Coote imploded due to his gambling problem, and Sarah chose to live alone for the last years of her life.
She died aged 81 in 1852.