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by popular television presenter Adam Hart-Davis

Editors Note: This article appeared as an introduction to the forthcoming Local Heroes series one.  It is reproduced here because it contains some fascinating snippets about Sarah Guppy, amongst others.

Inventors on the telly Sarah Guppy and others...

Early in January, on BBC2 in mid-evening, watch out for Local Heroes, a series of six programmes about pioneers of science, technology, and invention.  We had a wonderful time finding and researching the heroes.

Heroines, alas, were thin on the ground.  During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, women had little opportunity to make pioneering strides in science and technology.  We do include Florence Nightingale, who had to fight almost harder against the intolerance of her own family than against the vectors of disease.  She saved thousands of lives in the Crimea and brought about colossal reforms both in the management of hospitals and in the status of nursing.


We open the series with another woman, of whom I am prepared to bet you have never heard – Sarah Guppy.  In 1811, when Isambard K Brunel was only five years old and the Clifton Suspension Bridge many decades in the future, Sarah patented the suspension bridge!  She seems to have ignored – or been unaware of – the fact that people had been making suspension bridges for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.


In 1831 she took out a patent for a bed with steps that slid underneath, not only making it easier to climb into bed but also preventing the ingress of dust.  The bed also incorporated a set of springs and rollers, so the occupant could do a full set of exercises without even getting up in the morning!


However, my Favourite patent of Sarah’s was for a modified tea or coffee urn, in which, while heating the water, she not only boiled her eggs but also kept her toast warm.  Having tried this out I can confirm that it works well; no modern kitchen should be without one.


Some of our heroes are – like Sarah – not desperately serious.  Others are household names, including Harry Ferguson and his tractors, John Boyd Dunlop and his pneumatic tyre, and John Dalton, meteorologist from the Lakes, who conceived the ideas of partial pressures and atomic weights.  Some of these people changed our lives, and in one way or another left their mark upon the world.


In each case on the screen we will tell the story of the hero, in the place where he or she worked, and try to demonstrate the invention or idea, using simple home-made apparatus.


Of all the stories we tell in the course of the series, my favourite is that of Neville Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal and reluctant hero, who used Newton’s idea of the Attraction of Mountains to measure the mass of the Earth, way back in 1774.  This was a real pioneering effort, at the limits of existing technology.


Maskelyne’s work led not only to the measurement of the mass of the Moon, but also to the invention of contour lines.  And at the end-of-the-expedition party on the mountain his bothy caught fire, and the local fiddler’s violin was burnt to death!

Neville Maskelyne

Harry Ferguson

John Boyd Dunlop

John Dalton

Alas... no Sarah!

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