Mothers of Invention: Sarah Guppy

Sarah Guppy was paid £40,000 by the British Government for a way to keep barnacles off boats. That’s about $4.5 million today. In 1811, she created a way to make safe piling for bridges. This important invention was employed right away by a Scottish civil engineer. This time, Guppy refused money for her creation. She saw the invention as something for the public’s benefit, not for hers alone. She was a wildly versatile inventor during an era where women rarely worked, much less held patents.

Her Inventions. His Patents.

Victorian Era women were not allowed to own property, and that includes intellectual property. This meant that she had to file for patents under her husband’s name. This didn’t deter Mrs. Guppy. It seems she had a knack for creating and was going to do it whether she received credit or not. 

While Isambard Kingdom Brunel is lauded for his masterful creation of civil engineering feats still employed in the United Kingdom, including The Great Western Railway, he would often receive suggestions and support from his good friend, Sarah Guppy. Like most inventors, it seemed Mrs. Guppy had an unsatisfied appetite for creating, improving, and inventing.  

The Suspension Bridge

Guppy is often given credit for the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, England. As one of the most recognizable structures in Bristol, the Clifton Suspension Bridge is the subject of much lore, including a very close connection to Sarah Guppy. Her son, Thomas, worked with Isambard Kingdom Brunel and her patent for “erecting bridges without arches” is visible in the structure. Her actual patent was for a chain bridge. With her nautical understanding, it’s believed her creation involved heavy anchor chains. While she can’t lay claim specifically to the Clifton, she nonetheless deserves credit in the vast stew of ideas that led to its creation. 

As an inventor and creator, Sarah Guppy was both eclectic and brilliant. She was well-read and showed sharp business skills during a time when women were rarely involved in either. She was arguably one of the first who demonstrated her own special “Art of Engineering.” 

It’s modern-day women like Guppy, that we celebrate regularly in our regular podcast The Art of Engineering.


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Sarah Guppy image: By Source, Fair use,

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