11 Forgotten Women who Invented the British Industrial Revolution

When we think of inventors of the Industrial Revolution the first names that come to mind are usually those of men: Brunel, Arkwright, Darby, and Watt. But many women were innovators too, some of whom utterly transformed our world for the better. This post is to call attention to their remarkable achievements, and to identify a few who have been completely forgotten.

  1. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689–1762)
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Lady Mary was among those responsible for saving more lives than any other human being in human history (and so I’ve devoted the most space to her, and put her first): in 1721 she brought the practice of inoculation from Turkey to Britain, and to the West in general. Along with the later work of Edward Jenner, Robert Sutton, and countless other medical practitioners, her actions eventually resulted in the total eradication, in 1979, of smallpox. Smallpox was perhaps the world’s biggest killer, claiming the lives of 300–500 million people in the 20th century alone. Of those who became infected, about a third died, and even its survivors would have to live with its horrible effects: 65–85% of survivors were permanently scarred, and in some cases left completely blind.

It was Lady Mary’s brave actions that marked the beginning of the end for this terrible scourge. She was the wife of the ambassador to the Ottoman court, and while stationed in Adrianople (Edirne), Belgrade, and Constantinople (Istanbul), she observed that inoculation was practised in Turkish folk medicine, particularly during epidemics.

Inoculation, or “variolation” (from the Latin word for smallpox variola), was not quite the same as vaccination — at least, not in those days. It involved collecting the fluid from the pustules of a smallpox victim, or crushing up the material from their scabs, and then scratching the skin of the person you wished to immunise against smallpox, and rubbing the puss into the scratch. The patient would still get smallpox, but usually of a much milder sort. (It still, however, involved the risk of death — this is where Edward Jenner came in, as he discovered that he could instead immunise against smallpox by using the pus from non-deadly cowpox (varolae vaccinae). Incidentally, vaccination thus takes its name from the Latin for ‘cow’. The word has since been applied to all sorts of other diseases because of Louis Pasteur, who named his methods of immunizing against anthrax and rabies in honour of Jenner’s discovery.

But without Lady Mary, there could have been no Jenner — he would have had no technique upon which to improve. She was herself a survivor of smallpox, and had lost her only brother to the disease. So she realised the benefits of inoculation, being aware of the risks, but also recognising that falling prey to an epidemic was likely to be even worse. Like some other Westerners in Turkey, she had her 5-year-old son inoculated by the embassy surgeon, Charles Maitland. But it was her next step that transformed the world: upon her return to England, a smallpox epidemic broke out, and she made the difficult decision to inoculate her daughter. This was the first inoculation in Western Europe, and it was a sensation.

She endured condemnation of doctors, the media, and even some clergymen. She was even shouted at in the streets for being an “unnatural mother”. But she persevered, becoming an untiring advocate for the technique. The breakthrough was when she convinced the Princess Caroline, wife to the heir to the throne, to take the procedure seriously. Caroline should perhaps also be recognised for her role in saving so many hundreds of millions of lives: she arranged an experiment on prisoners in Newgate prison. Six prisoners, all condemned to the gallows, were offered the chance to save their lives and gain their freedom if they underwent the procedure. The resounding success of the trial was a huge blow in favour of the technique, and Princess Caroline had the royal princes and princesses inoculated soon afterwards, helping to convince the medical profession, and society at large.

Without Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s bravery and perseverance, many of us alive today would simply never have been born.

2. Eleanor Coade (1733–1821)

If you’ve ever been to London, then you’ve seen this remarkable woman’s invention. In 1770, Coade developed an artificial stone, which was used in countless statues and building facades, particularly around London and in spa towns like Bath. She called it lithodipyra, but today it’s known as coadestone. Perhaps the most iconic example of her work is the Southbank Lion, on the Southern end of Westminster Bridge:

The Southbank Lion, made with Coadestone (image by David Dixon under Creative Commons license)

Coadestone is versatile, yet withstands the elements with ease. After two centuries of soot, smog, and air pollution in London, many of the monuments made with Coade’s material are as unweathered and detailed as they were the day they were made. She worked with many of the most celebrated architects of her day: Robert Adam, James and Samuel Wyatt, William Chambers, John Nash, and John Soane. And she had grit, necessary in a business world that was largely male: she initially bought her artificial stone company from a Daniel Pincot. But when Pincot pretended that the business was his, she promptly fired him.

3. Henrietta Vansittart (1833–1883)

Henrietta is one of my favourite inventive women, because she was active in a field that was so overwhelmingly dominated by men: engineering. Her father was James Lowe, an inventor of screw propellers for steam ships, and she devoted herself to improving upon his work after his death. The propeller she developed was a success, being trialed on HMS Druid in 1869 by the Admiralty, and even winning a prize in 1871 at the Kensington Exhibition. The famous ocean liner, the Lusitania, was fitted with her propeller. In a touching tribute to her father, she made sure to call her invention the Lowe-Vansittart Propeller.

Henritta Vansittart’s patent screw propeller

Vansittart was so surprising to her male contemporaries, that they could not help but be impressed. A glowing obituary called her “a remarkable personage with a great knowledge of engineering matters and considerable versatility of talent”. And she was a polished social climber, marrying rich, and even having a long-lasting affair with a cabinet secretary, Edward Bulwer Lytton (Disraeli blamed her influence for Lytton’s infrequent attendance in Parliament). Sadly, all did not end well for her — she spent her last days in a lunatic asylum, apparently from acute mania and anthrax.

4. Anna Maria Garthwaite (1688–1763?)

When we consider innovations, we tend to think of processes, not products. But the British Industrial Revolution was about more than just gadgets, materials, and medical advances — it was also about design.

Enter Garthwaite, who was one of the most important designers in the 1740s for the silk industry in Spitalfields, London.

Some of Garthwaite’s astounding and technically complex designs. If you’re ever in London, go and see them in person at the Victoria & Albert Museum

Garthwaite’s designs were beautiful, but also technically complex: she needed to create precise diagrams that could be used by the weavers. Yet she didn’t always get the recognition she deserved: written reports would allude to a certain female silk designer, but then fail to mention her by name. Fortunately, her extraordinary output has since been recognised and celebrated.

5. Ada King, Countess Lovelace

No list of British innovators would be complete without Ada Lovelace — she is by far the best known today. She fully described a method of using Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine to calculate the Bernoulli numbers, and for this is often recognised as one of the world’s first computer programmers (after Babbage himself, and L.F. Menabrea, whose work she translated).

This mathematical ability was all the more impressive, because the Analytical Engine was not actually built. Ada’s ability is thus comparable to writing a functioning “Hello Word” program on paper, before the invention of the PC. Her innovation, however, was in imagining the possibilities of Babbage’s machine. She recognised the difference between mere calculating machines, and ones that could have a more general purpose: she envisioned a time when the Analytical Engine could be applied to more than just numbers.

Her life, unfortunately, was a tragic one. She never properly met her father, the itinerant and unfaithful poet Lord Byron, and her mother became obsessed with stamping out any tendencies that Ada might have towards being like him. She did not even see his portrait until she reached the age of 20. After a teenage affair with a tutor, which was discovered, Ada herself came to view mathematics as a means of necessary self-denial. Her last years were spent hooked on opium, and managing a financially ruinous addiction to gambling. She died aged only 36, from uterine cancer.

6. Mary de Lima Barreto (fl.1802)

There are many innovative women about whom we really don’t know much at all. One of these is Mary de Lima Barreto, who in 1802 patented a poultice for treating and curing ruptures. I’m not sure if it worked, but you can read the recipe here. Quite unusually, the patent was taken out in the name of both Barreto and her husband, with no question of her claim to be the inventor. Her husband, Joseph de Oliveira Barreto, was a wealthy merchant from Lisbon, Portugal. He was involved in the Peninsular War, apparently acting as a go-between for various politicians on both sides. Their family must have been quite prestigious, as their children all married into the French aristocracy: one daughter, Joana, married the marquis de Chardonnay, and another, Maria Urbana, married Louis Chrétien Carrière, baron de Beaumont, and then the Baron d’Ecquevilly. More research is needed into the identity of this innovator and her remarkable family.

7. Elizabeth Bell (fl.1803–7)

Another little-known innovator, Bell was described on her first patent as a spinster in Hampstead, London. In 1803 she obtained patents for a chimney-sweeping device. It seems likely that she was inspired by the popular campaign at that time to abolish the employment of children as chimney sweeps. Central to the campaign was the need for a technological solution to the problem, for which prizes were offered by the Society for Superseding the Necessity of Climbing Boys, and by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (which survives today as the Royal Society of Arts).

Elizabeth Bell’s pulley device for cleaning chimneys, to be placed atop the chimney

We do not know if Bell tried to submit her innovations for the prizes. But her solution must have been somewhat lucrative — it was apparently worth the considerable expense of obtaining another patent four years later, for some slight modifications to the device. Ultimately, the most successful chimney-sweeping device was that developed by George Smart — unlike Bell’s clunky frame, which had to be placed atop the chimney, Smart’s “scandiscope” was more flexible and portable, and could be operated from the comfort of the hearth.

8. Henrietta Caroline Bentley (fl.1794–1820)

Among the more celebrated women of the period was Caroline Herschel, a pioneering astronomer, and the first person to be paid by the state for her contributions to science. Herschel was paid a pension of £50 for her contributions. But another woman by the name of Henrietta Caroline Bentley had, sometime before 1820, been granted a pension of a whopping £300 per year (equivalent to at least £21,000 today). I have not yet been able to trace the precise reason, but we do know that she was an innovator: in 1794, described as a spinster of Southampton, she was granted a patent for “a bed for invalids”, which could be made, and the linens changed, at minimal inconvenience to the patient. Might she have been paid in recognition of her innovation? Only further research will help uncover this mysterious figure.

9. Mrs Clements (fl.1720)

The British Industrial Revolution also saw numerous innovations in food: it was the age in which Alfred Bird invented baking powder, in which John Cadbury developed chocolate products, and in which biscuits and bread began to be mass-produced. But earlier than that, a mysterious “Mrs Clements” of Durham reportedly invented dry mustard — although we know almost nothing at all about her, her name is still used in branding today:

Mrs Clements’s innovation is still used in branding today

10. Frances Pawlett (1720–1808)

Lovers of fine cheese have a lot to thank Pawlett for: she was the woman who developed and popularised Stilton cheese. Based out of Wymondham, in Leicestershire, she supplied the Bell Inn of her brother-in-law Cooper Thornhill, in Stilton — hence the name that stuck. Stilton cheese had certainly been invented before she was born — I found a version from 1726, when she was only 6 years old, already being sold at the Bell Inn according to a “strictly old” recipe. But it seems that Pawlett made major improvements, and helped to make the cheese the international sensation it is today. She lived to the extraordinary age (at the time) of 89 — so long, it seems, that it must have been a point of humour to her relatives: her gravestone reads, simply, “Remember to Die”.

11. Sarah Guppy (1770–1852)

Guppy, born Beach, and later remarried as Coote, is perhaps my favourite innovative woman of the period — the ideal embodiment of the polymath, Enlightenment innovator. She is most famous for patenting a bridge design, although this was not for a suspension bridge, as is sometimes asserted. But that should not detract from her other remarkable achievements, and her bridge patent was used in Telford’s magnificent Menai Bridge. She also patented a bed with a reclining feature that doubled as an exercise machine; a method of caulking wooden ships; and an attachment to tea and coffee urns that could poach eggs and warm toast. She developed a scheme for recycling roadside manures for use as farm fertilizer, suggested safety procedures for railways, and experimented with a tobacco-based solution to treat foot rot in sheep. And she copyrighted numerous designs for improved candlesticks, stoves, and other appliances.

Guppy’s innovation was not limited to the technological. She was concerned with the moral improvement of servants, founding a Society for the Reward and Encouragement of Virtuous, Faithful, and Industrious Female Servants. And she set out proposals for the housing of elderly widows and spinsters, and funded a shelter for Bristol’s poorer sailors. Her actions as a philanthropist placed her at the centre of Bristol’s intellectual life, particularly as a shareholder in the Bristol Institute for the Advancement of Science, and in the Great Western Railway. Although Guppy was not the inventor of the suspension bridge in particular, she was a remarkable innovator who deserves to be celebrated.