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Revealing lives of women in science and technology: the case of Sarah Guppy

The most recent update to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) adds 93 new biographies, including 18 of women. At just under 20% of the total this is higher than for the Dictionary as a whole (11%, rising to 19.3% for those born after 1840) and reflects long-term changes in historical research. The media response – in particular to the biography of Sarah Guppy (1770-1852) – has also been revealing.

Guppy, as a patent-holding female inventor, is a rare type for the early 19th century but one that we are clearly eager to hear about today. It is the kind of life that (mostly women) historians have been researching since the 1970s and, more recently, has been transformed into popular role model: the archetypical example is Ada Lovelace, whose name has been adopted for a day celebrating and encouraging women in science and technology. It is interesting to note, though, just what we do and don’t want to know about Guppy and women like her. Comparing the carefully compiled ODNB entry by Madge Dresser with other accounts reveals much about how we put past lives to use today.

It is not surprising that recent newspaper reports (e.g. Telegraph, Independent and Bristol Post) have latched onto Guppy’s 1811 patent as something particularly atypical and worth celebrating: a big engineering project. Her patent was for a method of “erecting and constructing bridges and rail-roads without arches or sterlings, whereby the danger of being washed away by floods is avoided” – a chain-suspended bridge. This was, she believed, a potential solution to the long-discussed problem of erecting a bridge over the Avon.

Some articles extrapolate from this, and from the fact that Guppy was an advocate for and investor in what was to become the Clifton Suspension Bridge, that she rather than Isambard Kingdom Brunel was the bridge’s true designer. It’s a great headline, playing into a cherished narrative of unsung heroes, overlooked women and unfairly neglected contributors to science and technology. In fact, it is somewhat misleading regarding the nature of Guppy’s contribution and also privileges one part of her life over its many other aspects.

Menai Bridge, Wales, by Ton 1959. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Menai Bridge, Wales, by Ton 1959. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Guppy did not design the Clifton Suspension Bridge, although she could, and did, claim credit for significant input on the design of Thomas Telford’s Menai Bridge (between Anglesey and the Welsh mainland, completed 1826). It was later reported that she had waived fees for Telford’s use of her ideas, claiming her chief concern was public benefit over personal profit. Her role in the Clifton Bridge is less clear, although she was said to have made models for Brunel and he does seem to have used principles outlined in Guppy’s 1811 patent in his 1830s design.

The Sarah Guppy we find in these articles and earlier accounts on the internet (Wikipedia, Intriguing History, Amazing Women in History), in books and on TV is, above all, an inventor and engineer. As well as the bridge design, they note her other patents, although there is perhaps less interest in these mostly domestic innovations. Adam Hart Davis is one who rather condescendingly took these to indicate that she was “not desperately serious”. There is, however, near silence on Guppy’s apparently more conventional female activities, centred on education and philanthropy.

Although in 1845 she was described as “a lady favourably known for her scientific attainments”, Guppy probably saw herself as a woman of letters and benefactor. Her inventions were very much of a piece with the pamphlets and correspondence in which she presented schemes relating to a wide range of issues, including roads, animal welfare, public health, education, agriculture and horticulture. She also wrote a book for children, founded a charity school for girls, and took an interest in the physical and moral welfare of vulnerable groups, from widows to retired seamen and female servants.

Something discussed in the ODNB article, but which does not fit the budding heroine narrative presented elsewhere, is Guppy’s views on the last of these. She was a patron and founder member of the tellingly named Society for the Reward and Encouragement of Virtuous, Faithful, and Industrious Female Servants, and her pamphlet was chiefly concerned with the lack of virtue – indeed “depravity” – that she believed to be rife amongst them. Her suggested remedy was partly that mistresses should carefully counsel these young, uneducated girls and women, but also that their wages should be reduced – an awkward fact for those who would like to recruit her for feminism today.

By focusing on the whole life, instead of trying to fit rediscovered figures into pre-existing moulds shaped around the fables of heroic male inventors, we can learn much more. We can see how scientific or technical work could fit into past lives, often in ways and with motivations that we would now find unexpected. We also find that talent and hard work were never enough but that Guppy and others required support networks and financial backing. Such knowledge will help us find more and other lives in the historic record – and remind us that this essential support is still often lacking today.

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