Henrietta Vansittart

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Henrietta Vansittart, née Lowe (1833-1883) was an English engineer and inventor, awarded a patent for a screw propellor called the Lowe-Vansittart propellor. She is considered to be one of the first self-trained female engineers, with her concentration being on ship propulsion.[1][unreliable source?]


Henrietta Vansittart, born Henrietta Lowe, was born in 1833.[2][self-published source?] She was one of six children born to James and Marie Lowe. Her father James Lowe was an engineer and inventor working on ship propulsion. Her family lived in poor conditions with her father occupation being a machinist and smoke jack maker.[2][self-published source?] In March 23, 1838 James Lowe took out a patent for a new screw propeller.[3][unreliable source?] Her father made no significant financial gain from his contributions due to competition in infringement battles. By the 1850, James Lowe nearly ran his family into bankruptcy.[2][self-published source?] This led to her marriage to a Lieutenant named Frederick Vansittart in 1855.[1]

By 1859, Vansittart was having an affair with Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a well-known novelist and politician, which lasted for 12 years.[1][3][unreliable source?] The affair was known throughout both families, as well as the House of Commons, which Bulwer-Lytton was a part of. Though the affair ended in 1871, when he died in 1873, Bulwer-Lytton left money in his will for both Henrietta and her husband, though his sum was smaller.[1][3][unreliable source?]


There is no documentation on her education. Henrietta Vansittart was proclaimed a self-trained engineer. Her first initiation into engineering was when she accompanied her father James Lowe on HMS Bullfinch in 1857 to test his latest screw propellers. In 1866, her father was tragically killed, aged 69, by a wagon in London.[1][unreliable source?] After this event, Henrietta Vansittart took on her father's work without any scientific or academic training.[citation needed]

Career and work[edit]

Shortly after her marriage, Vansittart began to study her father's work on ship propulsion.[3] She had accompanied her father on the HMS Bullfinch to test out a new version of his screw propeller, which began her interest, in 1857.[2] The Lowe propeller had been fixed to many British warships by this time, but James Lowe never saw any financial reward due to infringement battles.[4] When Vansittart's father died in 1866, after being run over by a carriage, she began working and experimenting in earnest, perhaps looking for the recognition her father never had in his lifetime.[4]

Within two years, Vansittart was awarded a patent (#2877), for what she called the Lowe-Vansittart propeller.[5] Her argument for the propeller was that it allowed ships to move faster and smoother, while using less fuel.[2] Her work went on to be fitted on many ships, including the HMS Druid, the Scandinavian, and the Lusitania.[3][1] In addition, she also took out an American patent (#89712), which was on the construction of screw propellers.[1] The Lowe-Vansittart Propeller was awarded a first-class diploma at the Kensington exhibition.[citation needed]

For her work on ship propulsion, Henrietta Vansittart won many awards, was mentioned by name in various newspapers, such as The Times, as well as took her invention to several exhibitions all over the world.[3]

In 1876, Henrietta Vansittart was the first female to write, read, and illustrate her own diagrams and drawings for a scientific article presented at Association of Foreman Engineers and Draughtsmen.[2][self-published source?]

Death and legacy[edit]

In her forties Henrietta Vansittart began showing signs of mania.[3] In late 1882, she was found wandering the streets by police, confused. She was ordered by magistrates to the Tyne City Lunatic Asylum, where she died of acute mania and anthrax on February 8, 1883.[3][1]

With the work that she accomplished, ships could now move faster and use less fuel, while being maneuvered better in reverse. She did this at a time in history when there were no female engineers, with no formal scientific or engineering training.[2] Records show that she was also the first female to author and present, with her own drawing and diagrams, information while seeking a patent of her own. Her work is considered by some to be "one of the most important nautical inventions of the 19th century."[1] However, she never paid the fee to renew the patent.[6]

She never had any children, and her husband died in 1902.[3]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Three Unsung Inventions: Tarmac, Time and Propellers". Open University. Retrieved 2018-04-06.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g "Henrietta Vansittart – Female engineer of the Industrial revolution". literarylandscapes. 2017-03-09. Retrieved 2018-03-31.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Henrietta Vanstittart engineer". Intriguing History. 2016-02-28. Retrieved 2018-03-31.
  4. ^ a b "England's First Woman of Technology and Why She Matters - Alan Rothschild". alanwrothschild.com. Retrieved 2018-04-07.
  5. ^ "Henrietta Vansittart". Sciencemuseum.org.uk. 2018-04-23.
  6. ^ "Vansittart, Henrietta (1840–1883) - Dictionary definition of Vansittart, Henrietta (1840–1883)". www.encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 2018-04-07.