Henrietta Vansittart (nee Lowe)(1833 or 1840 - 8th February 1883)
Henrietta Lowe Vansittart is often considered to be the first British woman to work as a ‘proper’ engineer or naval architect.
Her father James was a blacksmith-inventor who was not doing well financially at that time but was registering patents not long after her birth. Using his wife’s money and connections he submitted ideas for novel propellor designs to the Royal Navy but by the time Henrietta was an adult the family was in penury. This seems to have been due to litigation problems protecting his patent, despite the adoption of his general scheme for submerged propellers. He won all his court cases from 1842-50 but still gained no financial benefit. The Admiralty and others interested in testing propeller-driven vessels, made use of the Lowe concepts, without paying him. From 1857 until her father’s death in 1866, Henrietta was his assistant, and after his death she carried on the work.
This progressed with such success that in 1868 she was able to get her own patent (no. 2877) for the Lowe-Vansittart propeller. She also gained a United States patent #89,712 on May 4, 1869 for her Method of Construction for Screw Propellers, in which she described her work:
“The object of this invention is to economize the power required in driving steam-propellers for ships or other vessels. This is effected by so modifying the form of the blades of screw-propellers, as to cause them to act more effectually on the water, and to prevent them from “churning,” or uselessly stirring the water near the centre of motion.
In carrying out the invention, the blades of the propeller are so shaped, that when viewed in edge view, and in cross-section, instead of forming portions of the thread of a screw, they will present a compound curved line, curling in opposite directions from the centre to the edges. The blades may be set at any desired angle on their boss, and, for convenience, they may be cast with the boss, which by preference, is made in the form of a truncated sphere or barrel.
The propeller may be constructed with two or more blades and these blades may taper either to or from the boss.”
In1869 the Admiralty adopted it for trials on HMS Druid, following an attempted trial on the corvette HMS Cadmus which had been called off after the ship was in an accident. Her propeller was tested on the Druid in competition with a “Griffiths” propeller and that trial was extensively reported in the press, but for some reason the trial of her propeller seems not to have been reported in the same detail. The trial of the “Griffiths” propellor did not go well, what with extreme vibration throughout the ship, insufficient steampower and compass problems. From then on, the Lowe-Vansittart propeller system was fitted to many naval and merchant ships.
Not surprisingly, the part played by Vansittart, even though she was a married woman at a time when women of her class rarely left home let alone worked, caused a sensation and was reported in The Times. She exhibited models of her propeller widely and was the only woman to attend engineering societies in her own right.In 1871 her Lowe-Vansittart propeller model was awarded a first-class diploma at the International Exhibition in Kensington, a first class diploma and medal at the 1872 Dublin, 1875 Paris, 1876 Belgian, 18979 Sydney Exhibition, 1880 Melbourne and 1881 Adelaide Exhibitions, as well as other awards at the Royal Cornwall and Naples Maritime Exhibitions.
Henrietta was assiduous in promoting not only her father’s part in its design but also his family antecedents.However, it seems that the high cost had deterred Henrietta from renewing the patent for her propeller, which was to expire not long before her death.Just before her death in 1883, she attended her last scientific meeting, at the North East Coat Exhibition of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineer at Tynemouth.
Henrietta Lowe was born in 1833 or 1840, probably in Ewell, Surrey. In 1855, through her mother’s connections with the Vansittart family, Henrietta met and married Lieutenant Frederick Vansittart (1827- 1902), a lieutenant in the 14th Dragoons (later the Hussars) who were just back from the Second Anglo-Sikh War, and then based at the British Embassy in Paris, where they were married by its chaplain. Despite herfamily’s poverty, her mother’s family connections put Henrietta into the same class and social circles as her husband. No picture of her survives so we have no way to know if she was a great beauty as well as a great engineer. Most records state she was born in 1833 but in a letter to the Reading Mercury at the end of her life she stated that she was only 15 years of age when she married the lieutenant, which would place her year of birth in 1840. Her husband sold his army commission on their marriage and they set up home in London.
Frederick seems to have been an exceptionally supportive husband as, within a couple of years, Henrietta was working with her father aboard HMS Bullfinch for the trials of his new screw propeller and, from 1859 to 1871 she had an affair with another family friend: Edward Bulwer Lytton, first Baron Lytton (1803–1873). Lytton left both of them money in his will.
In 1883 she was found wandering the streets in a very confused state of mind and was consequently committed to Tyne City Lunatic Asylum, and died shortly afterwards, of anthrax and mania.