The Woman Who Spanned the Gorge of Invention: Sarah Guppy

Imagine a fruity Isambard Kingdom Brunel storming into your otherwise peaceful home and stealing your underpants. I’m not saying you’re wearing your underpants, he might have fancied a rifle through your drawers. Nonetheless, he’s now in possession of your underpants and he’s running out of your home. You may feel a bit disheartened. Angered, even. But Isambard KNEW you were not going to go to the police because that would be the dumbest report in history. “Hi police, I’d like to report a theft of my underpants.” You’d probably just be sat there, in your living room, a bit baffled. Now imagine if you’d designed the Clifton Suspension Bridge instead. And then here comes old underpants stealer himself, instead of taking your drawers he takes your drawings. And then history simply forgets any of this happened. You’d be pretty pissed off. But did any of this really happen? This is the truth of Sarah Guppy. And no, I’m not comparing my underpants to the Clifton Suspension Bridge, although both regularly need painting…

The Magic of the Slideshow and the Suspicion of a Dark Tale

Bristol. That’s a place. Somewhere near Wales. They have this famous bridge, the Clifton Suspension Bridge, although I have heard one Australian refer to it as the ‘Bristol Bridge’. If I had my own bridge, I’d name it the ‘Alan is Awesome Bridge’, but I imagine the council would vote me down.

Damn bureaucracy.

For a long time, history books recorded that Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a name that implies he’s compensating for something, was the recorded designer of the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Fair enough. But then some historians were doing a bit of digging, which they often do, but aren’t archaeologists, and they found out that this is not true.

No, this was a despicable and dark tale of a man stealing the invention of a poor woman, Sarah Guppy no less, her name lost to history. Crushed under the weight of brutal, male… hang on, what? Oh, he did design the bridge? But those historians just said a woman did and Isambard didn’t and… oh, what’s that? Historians can’t agree on who designed it?


Well, here’s the thing. Some argue it was Sarah’s design, others that it was Isambard’s design. In the engineering world, this is the king of the nerd battles. Who really designed the Bristol Bridge? There is only one way to settle this:


Oh, they’re both dead? Damn it. Well, I guess a slideshow might do the trick, but if I turned up to a spot of wrestling and there was a slideshow, I’d want some of my money back. Not all of it, granted. I mean, slideshows aren’t easy to make people!

Someone spent hours working on that, damn it all…

The Madcap Inventor Looking Damn Fine in a Tux

Sarah Guppy had all you needed in the 19th century to get anywhere: a private education and lots of money. Thank God THAT’S no longer the case. Ahem. She was the daughter of a wealthy brass founder and sugar importer. Sarah grew up in a circle of rich white men who were determined to make Bristol great again. They put statues of them up and everything.

And literally some haven’t been pulled down, yet…

Sarah married one of these Bristol merchants, Samuel Guppy, in 1795. She was 25, he was 40 and it wasn’t at all weird. They mixed with the wealthy elite of Bristol and became great friends with Isambard Kingdom Brunel when they met him at a party.

No, you’re shitting me, that’s your real name!

It is alleged that Sarah had a bit of a temper but was intelligent and sophisticated. Like me when I wear a monocle with my tux. Probably shouldn’t wear that to dinner at Dominoes, but still…

Sarah took a keen interest in Samuel’s business, which included an iron foundry. She had a love of inventing and she started sending letters off to various people, such as Lord Liverpool, who I’m reliably informed is not a Georgian superhero.

Sarah sent letters on how to reform the Smithfield meat market, and she proposed a recycling scheme for piles of manure. This was the horse age, she didn’t have a manure problem. She also invented a coffee and tea pot that also steamed breakfast eggs and kept the toast warm. She’s basically Wallace.

Sadly, Sarah became estranged from her Gromit. Samuel was too wrapped up in his business ventures to pay much attention to his wife, who was busy inventing some new trousers…

After Samuel’s death, Sarah inherited most of his fortune and spent it inventing some more things. She designed a new bed, for example, that reduced dust collection and improved ventilation. It also included under-mattress storage and an exercise machine.

Seriously, where is Sarah’s Netflix special?

But her greatest achievement was still to come. And it all came from the new Clifton Suspension Bridge, otherwise known to Australians as the Bristol Bridge, apparently…

Who Really Designed the Bristol Bridge?

In this era, women could not own property and this included patents. So this was a problem when, in 1811, Sarah invented a ‘New Mode of Constructing and Erecting Bridges and Railroads without Arches’, a method using piling for the construction of a suspension bridge. She said at the time:

I do fix or drive a row of piles, with suitable framing to connect them together, and behind these I do fix, or drive, and connect, other piles or rows of piles and suitable framing, or otherwise, upon the banks of said river or place.

From the outside looking in, it seems like Sarah had just invented the suspension bridge. Now, if you’re wondering how old Isambard Kingdom Brunel was when Sarah came up with her new method of building bridges and if he was old enough to steal said invention, he was five.

He was busy shoving marbles up his nose, I assume…

In 1826, Thomas Telford started work on the Menai suspension bridge. This was the world’s first major suspension bridge. It is alleged that Thomas asked Sarah to use her design. Others argue that this was a bit of history being rewritten to restore Sarah’s reputation. After all, she married a much older man, bringing great shame upon her family.

Telford’s bridge, in truth, shares little in common with Sarah’s design. When Sarah’s son Thomas went to work with Isambard Kingdom Brunel, or the ‘Notorious IKB’ as he was known (not), the Brunel and Guppy families forged a great bond. Two engineering titans. Sarah and Isambard. But not once did Isambard or Telford acknowledge Sarah. Her name is absent from all official documents. Is this because she had no involvement?

Well, the question remains:

Was the Clifton Suspension Bridge actually designed by Sarah?

The Truth of Clifton and the Lovely Warm Toast

This is a very hard question to answer. Like which would I choose to save between hot pants and bacon. Hot pants, obviously. I don’t know how to make them but I’m fairly certain I can give bacon a crack…

Remarkably, Sarah was able to secure a patent. In fact, she was the first woman to patent a bridge design. But the patent has no drawings and no detailed information. But from her description, her idea was essentially a suspension bridge. She promoted her idea in the local paper, the wonderfully named:

‘Felix Farley’s Journal’.

But Sarah’s design was not the world’s first suspension bridge. Designs of these bridges were common in South America and there was one in Britain. There had been talk of a bridge across the Avon Gorge in Bristol for some time. Sarah knew a suspension bridge was the ideal answer and she made a model of what it would look like.

Sarah Guppy was a brilliant and eccentric inventor but how much did Brunel owe to Sarah when it came to the Clifton Suspension Bridge?

Well, there were very good friends. Sarah understood the principles of suspension bridge engineering and knew Isambard personally by the time he arrived in Bristol. There is no doubt that some of her ideas and insights rubbed off on Isambard but individual genius does not exist in a vacuum.

Many make the bridge, not the one…

For so very long, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was credited with the design of that most famous bridge. Then historians discovered Sarah and fell into the trap of idolising her as this feminist icon who was trampled on. That isn’t true at all. The truth is simple:

Nobody stole anybody’s idea. Isambard and Sarah were good friends and bounced off each other their wonderful thoughts and ideas. Isambard was influenced by Sarah, sure, but he never stole from her. He was inspired by her.

So is Sarah irrelevant? No, of course not! She invented an exercise machine for your bed to get you OUT of bed in the morning. In the 1700s! And then you could go downstairs and have a cup of tea made for you with her automated machine THAT ALSO COOKED YOUR EGGS AND KEPT YOUR TOAST WARM!

How could you not love her!

The Dazzling World of Invention from the Mind of a Forgotten Georgian Pioneer

Sarah invented many things before the bridge and after. She was a problem solver, unlike me. I’m a problem starter. In fact, I’m just one giant problem. Sniff. In her life, she secured ten patents at a time, let’s not forget, when it was very hard for women to secure a patent. In fact, her most successful invention was a way of preventing barnacles from forming on the hull of boats. And it wasn’t a long stick…

This invention earned her a contract with the Royal Navy worth £40,000.

So did she really design the Clifton Suspension Bridge? I don’t think she cared a great deal. She was now literally sleeping on a bed of money.

Sarah Guppy was a very odd woman. In an age when women were expected to dedicate themselves to men, she flipped the finger to the standards of the day and got busy inventing. The extravagant and incorrect claims that others have made on her behalf regarding the Bristol Bridge have, sadly, overshadowed her many genuine achievements.

She was an enthusiastic supporter of the new bridge, campaigning to raise subscriptions for it, but she was so much more. She gave an insane amount of money to charities. She was an investor, investing in the Great Western Railway. She invented many wonderful things. And she found love again.

She married again in 1837, this time to a man 30 years younger than her. Predictably, her family were not happy. Again. She was 67. He was 37. Unfortunately, her family were proved right. Sarah’s new husband was a gambler and he gambled all her money away.

However, her passion for invention was not diminished. In 1842, she designed a system of metal pipes to extinguish fires, what we today know as a sprinkler system. She later invented a fire hood for stoves and a plate warmer. She even invented a tobacco-based solution to prevent foot-rot in sheep.

Yup. You read that correctly.

Sadly, Sarah died in 1852 with just £200 to her name. She was 81-years-old. Her passing hit Bristol hard with many local newspapers expressing great sadness. One noted that her intellectual abilities had remained undiminished to the last.

What is the truth of Sarah’s story? Does it really matter? We take bridges for granted. We take engineering for granted. But so many people poured everything they had into Bristol’s most iconic landmark and so many more engineering marvels, from blood, sweat and tears, to intellectual debate and wondrous light bulb moments.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was not the brute wandering into your home to steal your underpants, he was a genius just like Sarah, and together, they contributed much to the world of engineering.

But I would definitely file a police report if someone stole my underpants, especially if I was still wearing them…

It is unpleasant to speak of oneself – it may seem boastful, particularly in a woman.

– Sarah Guppy.

Toodle-Pip :}{:

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My Other Blogs: The Indelible Life of Me | To Contrive & Jive

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