The Lady is a Naval Engineer
Henrietta Vansittart changes the course of ship propulsion
Henrietta’s tale is one worthy of Hollywood treatment: as inspiring, titillating, and tragic as any portrait of historical male genius that’s regularly plastered across our screens.
Born into a poor family, her intelligence and hard work saw her eventually enjoy a successful career when she took up her father’s mantle of ship propeller engineer. Her work has been hailed as one of the most important nautical inventions in the 19th century. She found happiness outside of her loveless marriage in the form of a passionate 12-year affair with a handsome politician, but died in obscurity in an insane asylum at age 49.
Henrietta Lowe was born in Surrey, England in 1833. She was the fourth of six children. Five years after she was born, her father, a blacksmith and inventor, used all of his wife’s money to purchase a patent for his screw propeller. The ensuing legal battles over copyright infringement left the family destitute.
In 1855, Henrietta married 23-year-old Lieutenant Frederick Vansittart of the 14th Regiment of Light Dragoons. He had recently returned from several years of service in India fighting in the Anglo-Sikh Wars. Henrietta’s tinkering in her father’s workshop likely began at a young age, and her marriage didn’t seem to interrupt this apprenticeship. Vansittart accompanied her father on a test of his screw propellers onboard the HMS Bullfinch in 1857.
Perhaps she preferred the workshop over the boredom of life as a housewife. Or perhaps she just wasn’t very fond of her husband and liked the excuse to be out of the house. No matter her reason, learning at her father’s side was just the thing to engage her incredible mind.
Just a few years after getting married, Henrietta began an affair with well-known novelist and politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton. He was a member of parliament 30 years her senior. Henrietta moved into her grandfather’s old house in 1861 and Edward paid her an allowance during her estrangement from her husband.
The affair was intense, with passions running high on both sides. A December 1862 letter from Henrietta to Edward begins: “I cannot bear the suspense of waiting for an answer from you, it is…