Art & History, Science, Nature and Tech

The Clifton suspension bridge: designed by a woman, built by Brunel

One of the best known landmarks in Bristol, UK, the Clifton suspension bridge first opened in 1864. It was built by the famous British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but it has recently become public knowledge that it was designed by a woman. Our science editor Sam Gouldson explains who she was and why her work isn’t more widely known.

Who really designed the bridge?

The Clifton suspension bridge was designed by a woman called Sarah Guppy. She was born Sarah Beach in 1770, but when she married her husband Samuel Guppy she took his name. She was one of the great British inventors of her time and the bridge isn’t the only thing she came up with.

What else did she design?

The invention that earned Sarah the most money was her device to prevent barnacles forming on the hulls of ships. Without barnacles the ships would be able to cut better through water and travel more quickly, and the Royal Navy paid her £40,000 for it. That may not sound like much for such a valuable design, but today it would be more than £2.3 million. Her other inventions included a kettle that not only boiled water for tea but could cook an egg and keep toast warm, a candle holder that could keep candles alight for longer and a way of treating boats so that they were more watertight. She also came up with the idea of planting willow and poplar trees on the embankments of new railways, to hold the earth together and prevent landslides.

Why isn’t she more famous?

Sarah lived during the Georgian and Victorian eras. In those times married women weren’t allowed to own property in their own name, and intellectual property such as Sarah’s inventions were no different. Her husband had to file the patents on her behalf, as the property of the Guppy family. The patent for her method of piling bridge foundations in order to create a new kind of bridge was filed in 1811, but she refused to charge others to use the idea because she felt it was for the benefit of the public. Thomas Telford, a civil engineer, used her design to build the Menai bridge in 1826, and when the competition to design the Clifton bridge was announced Sarah gave her work to Brunel. When she wrote to him to suggest the use of willow and poplar trees to reinforce railway embankments, she explained that she didn’t want the credit for her idea because she felt that women “must not be boastful”.


Featured image: Sage Solar/Flikr



Who Invented Loom Bands?

Where did the loomband craze start, and who invented loom bands? That is the question we are going to answer today. Set your loombands aside for a moment and find out!

The Loomband craze started in 2011 with a Malaysian father of two crafty kids. Cheong Choo Ng’s daughters Teresa, then 12 years old, and Michelle, then 9 years old, liked to make bracelets out of rubber bands. 

Cheong wanted to join in the fun, but his fingers were too big. His first loom made similar bracelets to the ones his daughters were making, which didn’t really excite them.

His next attempt had three rows of pushpins, and he discovered that he could loop the bands in various geometric patterns to create much more interesting bracelets. Now his daughters were impressed!

At first the family made bracelets for friends and neightbours, until Cheong’s 12 year old daughter suggested he should try to sell the kits. He invested $10,000 in the first sets of RainbowLoom, and approached local stores with his invention.

At first the stores were reluctant to stock the RainbowLoom, so Cheong and his daughters filmed YouTube videos, so that people could see what was so fantastic about the loom.




An American toy shop owner discovered RainbowLooms, and started selling them in her two stores in Atlanta. She and her staff would demonstrate the loom bands to young girls, and the kids would ask their parents if they could buy them.

They soon found that loom bands appealed to boys just as much as girls, and that whole families were soon getting crafty with the little elastic bands! 

The store in Atlanta was part of a nationwide franchise (a chain of shops) and when the owners of the other shops heard about this fabulous new product, they wanted them in their stores.

Cheong couldn’t keep up with the demand, as the shops were selling out of RainbowLooms as soon as the new delivery arrived! Cheong gave up his normal job as an engineer for Nissan to work full-time as a toy manufacturer.

So how did a dad with a fab idea beat the big toy manufacturers and come up with this best-selling invention?  Cheong told Fast Company, that his training as an engineer helped him to create the RainbowLoom, and how to be successful in business 


 “Being an engineer I was more open to trying different things. Don’t give up. Try all options. Learn as you go. Push as many buttons as possible, one of them will work.”

In fact, Cheong said that the biggest lesson he has learned as a new business owner is to practice something common at Nissan: the lessons learned system. When something goes wrong, you do a step-by-step critical analysis. Trace the problem all the way back by asking why did the problem happen, and why did the cause of that problem happen and so on and so on until you find the root cause. And then figure out how to fix it so that it doesn’t happen again.


Cheong redesigned the loom 28 times until he was totally happy with the product, and spent a lot of time working out the best way to manufacture it, how to get the best quality, how to film the videos and market his invention. 

The story of loom bands is often told as an ‘overnight’ success, but that neglects to look at the hard work and innovation Cheong dedicated to developing the product. Having a great idea is only the first part of making it a success. 



Featured Image by Choons Design


Science, Nature and Tech

Who On Earth Invented … The Pedal Bin?!

Continuing our series on enterprising inventors of everyday things we take for granted, Sally Anne asks …

Who on Earth invented…the Pedal Bin?!

You’re carrying something to the bin, your hands are full and you don’t want to spill it. Thank goodness for the pedal bin! Read on to find out about the inventor who tried to make life easier.

Ergonomics is the science of making equipment which fits and works with the human body. This basically means making things work as easily and as conveniently as possible. Dr Lillian Gilbreth was a keen inventor who believed in finding the easiest way of getting things done. As such, she invented a range of gadgets to make jobs easier, including the pedal bin in the 1920s. Now we have to admit, pedal bins aren’t very exciting, but Lillian’s life definitely was.


Science, Nature and Tech

Who on Earth Invented Traffic Lights?!

Every day we use hundreds of inventions without even thinking about it. In this series, we’ll be celebrating some of the most overlooked inventions, finding out what inspired their inventors and maybe even a few unexpected tales along the way.  Contributor Sally Anne asks… “Who on Earth invented… Traffic Lights?!”