A period of profound change between c.1750 and 1850, the Industrial Revolution birthed inventions that began with the mechanisation of the textile industry, before going on to fundamentally transform almost every aspect of life. From transport to agriculture, the Industrial Revolution altered where people lived, what they did, how they spent their money and even how long they lived. In short, it laid the foundations for the world as we know it today.
When we think of inventors dating from the Industrial Revolution, names such as Brunel, Arkwright, Darby, Morse, Edison and Watt come to mind. Lesser spoken about, however, are the women who also contributed to the technological, social and cultural advancements of the age through their spectacular inventions. Often overlooked in favour of their male contemporaries, female inventors’ contributions have similarly shaped our world today and deserve to be celebrated.
From creations such as paper bags to the first computer program, here’s our pick of 5 women inventors from the Industrial Revolution.
1. Anna Maria Garthwaite (1688–1763)
Though the Industrial Revolution is most commonly associated with mechanical processes, it also yielded significant advances in design. Lincolnshire-born Anna Maria Garthwaite moved to the silk-weaving district of Spitalfields in London in 1728, and stayed there for the next three decades, creating over 1,000 designs for woven silks.
She was renowned for her floral designs that were technically complex, since they needed to be used by weavers. Her silks were widely exported to Northern Europe and Colonial America, and then even further afield. However, written reports often forgot to mention her by name, so she often missed out on the recognition she deserved. However, many of her original designs and watercolours have survived, and today she is recognised as one of the most significant silk designers of the Industrial Revolution.
2. Eleanor Coade (1733-1821)
Born into a family of wool merchants and weavers, Eleanor Coade was exposed to the workings of business from a young age. An astute businesswoman, in around 1770, Eleanor Coade developed ‘coade stone’ (or, as she called it, Lithodipyra), a type of artificial stone that is both versatile and able to withstand the elements.
Some of the most famous sculptures made of coade stone include the Southbank Lion near Westminster Bridge, Nelson’s Pediment at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, sculptures that decorate Buckingham Palace, Brighton Pavilion and the building that now houses the Imperial War Museum. All look just as detailed as the day they were made.
Coade kept the formula for coade stone a closely guarded secret, to the extent that it was only in 1985 that a British Museum analysis discovered that it was made of ceramic stoneware. However, she was a talented publicist, in 1784 publishing a catalogue that featured some 746 designs. In 1780, she obtained the Royal Appointment to George III, and worked with many of the most celebrated architects of the age.
3. Sarah Guppy (1770–1852)
Birmingham-born Sarah Guppy is the epitome of a polymath. In 1811, she patented her first invention, which was a method of making safe piling for bridges. She was later asked by Scottish civil engineer Thomas Telford for permission to use her patented design for suspension bridge foundations, which she granted to him free of charge. Her design went on to be used in Telford’s magnificent Menai Bridge. A friend to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, she also became involved in the construction of the Great Western Railway, suggesting her ideas to the directors, such as planting willows and poplars to stabilise embankments.
She also patented a bed with a reclining feature that doubled as an exercise machine, an attachment to tea and coffee urns that could poach eggs and warm toast, a method of caulking wooden ships, a means of repurposing roadside manure as farm fertiliser, various safety procedures for railways and a tobacco-based treatment for foot rot in sheep. Also a philanthropist, she was situated at the centre of Bristol’s intellectual life.
4. Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)
Perhaps one of the best known female inventors in history, Ada Lovelace was born to the infamous and unfaithful poet Lord Byron, who she never properly met. As a result, her mother became obsessed with eliminating any tendencies Ada had that resembled her father. Nonetheless, she was recognised as having a brilliant mind.
In 1842, Ada was commissioned to translate a French transcript of one of mathematician Charles Babbage’s lectures into English. Adding her own section simply titled ‘Notes’, Ada went on to write a detailed collection of her own ideas on Babbage’s computing machines that ended up being more extensive than the transcript itself. Within these pages of notes, Lovelace made history. In note G, she wrote an algorithm for the Analytical Engine to compute Bernoulli numbers, the first published algorithm ever specifically tailored for implementation on a computer, or in simple terms – the first computer program.
5. Margaret Knight (1838-1914)
Sometimes nicknamed ‘the lady Edison’, Margaret Knight was an exceptionally prolific inventor in the late 19th century. Born in York, she started working in a textile mill as a young girl. After seeing a worker stabbed by a steel-tipped shuttle that shot out of a mechanical loom, the 12-year-old invented a safety device which was later adopted by other mills.
Her first patent, dating to 1870, was for an improved paper feeding machine that cut, folded and glued flat-bottomed paper shopping bags, which meant workers didn’t need to do it by hand. Though many female inventors and writers concealed their gender by using an initial instead of their given name, Margaret E. Knight is clearly identified in the patent. Over the course of her life, she received 27 patents, and, in 1913, reportedly worked ‘twenty hours a day on her eighty-ninth invention.’