Was Sarah Guppy the real inventor of the Clifton Suspension Bridge?

The suggestion that a mother-of-six – and not Isambard Kingdom Brunel – designed the Clifton Suspension Bridge made headline news last month. But what is the truth behind the story? Journalist Eugene Byrne investigates…

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Until recently, Sarah Guppy (1770–1852) has been a historical footnote, familiar only to Brunel enthusiasts and local historians in her home city of Bristol. Even then, she was mostly known for curious inventions and her rather scandalous second marriage to a man 30 years her junior. She is rather better known now thanks to her recent inclusion in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB).

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A new crop of ODNB entries is always a minor red-letter day in newsrooms. For local and national media alike, the impeccably researched tale of some long-forgotten but interesting figure is a story that writes itself.

Guppy, a “mum-of-six” who, so went the headline, designed Bristol’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, was a natural choice, featuring in the national and regional media and becoming the subject of a BBC Radio 4 ‘Thought for the Day’. A prolific female inventor living at a time when the proper place for a woman was considered to be the home is good copy, but she was also a shrewd businesswoman and investor and her inventions encompassed everything from shipbuilding and bridges to domestic gadgets.

Guppy filed a patent for a suspension bridge and shared ideas with father-of-three (as no headline has ever called him) Isambard Kingdom Brunel. This has caused some people to conclude that Mrs Guppy in fact taught young Brunel everything he knew, or that she deserves the credit for the Clifton Suspension Bridge, or that she actually invented suspension bridges and has been written out of history by male bias.

Guppy was born in Birmingham, the daughter of Richard and Mary Beach. The family were involved in the brass and sugar trades and the young Sarah married Bristol businessman Samuel Guppy in 1795.

She was an educated woman of obvious intelligence and (allegedly) fiery temperament. She was more sophisticated than her husband, who was older than her, and these differences may account for their increasing estrangement later in the marriage.

Guppy was certainly not content to simply take charge of the servants, manage a home and bring up the six children they would have. She took an early interest in Samuel’s business, which included an iron foundry, warehouse, agricultural machinery, a nail factory and more.

She had a hand in the invention of a new type of nail for copper sheathing on ships’ hulls to prevent the growth of barnacles. The Royal Navy saw the advantage (barnacles slowed ships down) and Sarah negotiated a contract with the Admiralty worth at least £20,000 (and possibly much more).

Guppy wrote poetry and two children’s books, and was probably also the author of an anonymous 1807 pamphlet bemoaning the corruption of young female servants by city life. She was also a founder of the Society for the Reward and Encouragement of Virtuous, Faithful and Industrious Female Servants.

In March 1811 Guppy obtained patent no 3045, relating to the construction of suspension bridges:

…. and in either case I do dispose upon the said chains, longitudinally and crosswise, such fit pieces of timber or iron, or other suitable materials, as shall and may constitute a plat form (sic), which, by the connection or disposition of the materials thereof, shall afford a proper support for a road or pavement of the usual structure, or for rail roads…

This was the suspension bridge in its recognisable modern form.

Yet Sarah Guppy cannot really be called the ‘inventor’ of the suspension bridge. Bridges suspended from chains were not a new idea; there are earlier examples from Europe and China, while James Finley (1756–1828) is usually thought to have built the world’s first modern wrought iron suspension bridge in Pennsylvania in 1801 – some 10 years before Sarah Guppy was granted her patent. However, it is Captain Sir Samuel Brown’s Union Bridge over the Tweed, built in 1820, that is generally considered the first modern chain bridge in Britain.

Guppy certainly communicated with Thomas Telford, whose Menai Bridge was completed in 1826. By then, the principles behind the new bridges, made possible by improvements in iron working, were better understood. Telford may have consulted her in order to avoid getting bogged down in a legal wrangle.

Meanwhile back in Bristol there had long been talk of a bridge across the Avon Gorge. Sarah Guppy believed that a suspension bridge was the ideal answer, and even made a model of what it might look like. It went no further until the late 1820s, when a design contest for the proposed bridge – judged by Telford – took place.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who had by then designed two suspension bridges with his father, Marc, for a French colony, eventually won the contest and work on the Clifton Suspension Bridge began, though money problems meant it was fated never to be completed in Brunel’s lifetime.

English engineer and inventor Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806 - 1859) standing in front of the launching chains tethering his steamship the 'Great Eastern', during its construction at David Napier's shipyard on the Thames at Millwall, London, November 1857. (Photo by Robert Howlett/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Isambard Kingdom Brunel standing in front of the launching chains tethering his steamship the ‘Great Eastern’, during its construction at David Napier’s shipyard on the Thames at Millwall, London, November 1857. (Photo by Robert Howlett/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

So how much did Brunel owe to Sarah Guppy?

We know that Brunel and Guppy were friendly. Sheila Hannon, who wrote a play about Guppy, researched her subject very closely and thinks that links between their two families went back to before Brunel came to Bristol.

“The Guppys had business premises in London as well as Bristol, and Sarah spent time in the capital, particularly after she and her first husband seem to have parted company… Sarah’s many talents included writing books for children, so I reckon she popped round the Brunels’, with books for little IKB [Isambard Kingdom Brunel], and chewed the fat with Marc about tunnels and bridges.”

What is certain is that Sarah Guppy was one of a handful of people in Britain at the time who understood the principles of suspension bridge engineering and definitely knew Isambard by the time he was in Bristol, and probably before that. Some, at least, of her ideas and insights must have rubbed off on him.

Madge Dresser, associate professor in history at the University of the West of England (UWE), and the author of the ODNB entry on Guppy, says: “The whole image of the heroic entrepreneur acting as a lone genius reduces our understanding of how great technological and scientific innovation happens. Individual genius is important but the individual does not work within a vacuum.

“Guppy was part of that wider enabling mix, she had vision and drive and an aptitude for discerning practical problems and proposing solutions. She was a natural promoter and would have been a whizz at building her brand by way of social media had she lived today.”

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The partially built structure of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, spanning the Avon Gorge in Bristol, c1863. (Photo by Henry Guttmann/Getty Images)

By the time her husband Samuel died in 1830 Sarah was very active in the life of Bristol, involved in various intellectual and charitable activities. She was an enthusiastic supporter of the bridge project, campaigning to raise subscriptions for it, and would later be an investor in the Great Western Railway (GWR) that Brunel was building.

Sarah’s son Thomas became one of Brunel’s closest business associates, working with him on the Great Western Railway and the Great Western, the Bristol-built ship that proved transatlantic steam navigation was feasible and cost-effective. It’s probably no coincidence that when her son and Brunel were working together she filed a patent for an improved method of caulking ships’ hulls.

Guppy remarried in 1837. The story goes that the well-born but impecunious Charles Eyre Coote saw her getting out of her carriage in Bath and told a friend immediately that he would wed her. The marriage took place without the knowledge of Guppy’s family; presumably because they suspected Coote, who was about 30 years her junior, was a fortune-hunter.

Mrs Sarah Coote registered new inventions under the Copyright and Design Act of 1839, though they did not earn much, if anything. In the meantime her husband’s weakness for gambling dissipated much of her fortune.

Sarah died in Clifton, Bristol in 1852. The local press regretted her passing and noted that her intellectual abilities had remained undiminished to the last.

UWE’s Professor Dresser says: “The fact that she was a woman who never served a formal apprenticeship, that she was subordinated in legal terms to her husbands and ideologically bound by patriarchal expectations of a woman’s ‘proper’ role, makes what she did achieve all the more extraordinary.”

Some of Sarah Guppy’s other inventions

The sprinkler system

In 1842 a design for a system of metal pipes to extinguish fires was registered in her husband’s name. It was almost certainly her invention and was presumably in the name of Charles Eyre Coote (who appears to have had no talent for invention) because a system designed by a woman would inspire less confidence.

The Teasmade

This ingenious gadget was a tea urn, which also allowed eggs to be poached in the steam, and had another compartment to keep toast warm.

The exercise bed

A bed with built-in exercise devices.

‘The Cook’s Comforter’

A fire hood for stoves.

Many of Guppy’s inventions were of a domestic nature, and they also include a plate warmer, a portable oven and a candlestick that allowed candles to burn longer and brighter.

She also took an interest in agriculture and horticulture. For example, she wrote to the Great Western Railway suggesting the planting of trees and withies along the lines to prevent landslips (a solution used to this day). She also concocted a tobacco solution to prevent foot-rot in sheep and invented a cast-iron corn staddle (support) to protect grain from rats.

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Eugene Byrne is a journalist and author and a visiting research fellow at the University of the West of England. He is very grateful for the help of Prof Dresser and of Peter Revelle of the Brunel Institute for generously providing their research material for this article.