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William Armstrong

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William Armstrong's 'Hydro electric machine', which used steam and water droplets to generate sparks from static electricity, displayed at the Discovery Museum, Newcastle

Lord William George Armstrong (1810–1900) of W. G. Armstrong and Co

1810 November 26th. Born at 9 Pleasant Row, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne, the second child and only son of William Armstrong (1778–1857), corn merchant and local politician, of Tyneside, and his wife, Ann, daughter of William Potter, a minor coal owner of Walbottle House, about 4 miles west of Newcastle.

William was originally launched on a career in law but his major interest was in engineering.

1834 Having completed legal training he became junior partner in the firm of Messrs. Donkin, Stable, and Armstrong. He began engineering as past-time.

1835 Aged 25. William married Margaret Ramshaw (1807–1893), the daughter of William Ramshaw, builder and engineer.

1840 Aged 30. He invented a hydraulic engine, following it up with other electrical and labour-saving devices, including the hydraulic crane. The first of these cranes was erected on the Newcastle Quayside and attracted wide attention. He also invented the hydraulic accumulator tower; a surviving example is some 300 feet high and dominates the docks at Grimsby.

1841 Living at North Street, Rothbury (age 30), Attorney at Law. With father William (age 60), Merchant and Margaret (age 30). [1]

1846 Having became so engrossed by his engineering experiments, he gave up law in 1846 to concentrate on mechanical engineering.

1846 Formed the Newcastle Cranage Co

1847, Armstrong founded the W. G. Armstrong and Co at the Elswick engine works at Newcastle, to produce hydraulic machinery, cranes and bridges, soon to be followed by artillery, notably the Armstrong breech-loading gun, which re-equipped the British Army after the Crimean War. A rifled Armstrong front loading gun was also supplied to the Confederate Army in the American Civil War. This gun was designed to sink the new ironclad ships of the Civil War. It fired a 150 lb shell 5-6 miles. One was stationed at Fort Fisher, NC. Rifled and throwing a shell-shaped projectile, the Armstrong gun is regarded as marking the birth of modern artillery. The Armstrong 100-pounder breech-loader naval rifle was, however, less successful. Armstrong handed over the rights of his guns to the nation, and received a knighthood. He also took the position of "Engineer of Rifled Ordnance" for the British Government, and set up the Elswick Ordnance Co, in which he had no financial interest, to manufacture the guns. Such was Armstrong’s fame as a gun-maker that he is thought to be a possible model for George Bernard Shaw's arms magnate in Major Barbara.

1851 Living at Jesmond Road, Jesmond (age 40 born Newcastle), Managing Partner of Manufacturing Engineers employing 400 men. With wife Margaret (age 44). Also two visitors and four servants. [2]

1858 of Elswick Iron Works, Newcastle.[3]

1859 Aged 49. On 23 February 1859 Armstrong was knighted for his services to the state and simultaneously appointed government engineer for rifled ordnance and superintendent of the royal gun factory at Woolwich Arsenal.

1861 Visitor at 9 Hyde Park Street, London (age 50 born Newcastle), Civil Engineer. Superintendent of Royal Gun Factories. [4]

1863 Despite the well demonstrated advantages of rifled artillery, in 1863 the British Government ceased ordering artillery from Armstrong's and for 17 years reverted to muzzle loading artillery manufactured at Woolwich. Armstrong resigned his position for the Government, the Elswick Ordnance Co merged with what was by now Sir W. G. Armstrong and Co, and the focus turned to finding overseas orders.

From 1863 onward Armstrong became less and less involved in the day to day running of his company affairs and began to pursue other interests. He became particularly noted for his successful pursuits in the field of landscape gardening. This was initially carried out in Newcastle's beautiful Jesmond Dene, most of which he owned and where he built a house for himself and his wife in the 1830s.

1863 President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science

1871 Living at Jesmond Dean Hall, Jesmond (age 60 born Newcastle), Knight Companion, Chief Partner in a form of Manufacturing Engineers. With wife Margaret (age 64). Five servants. [5]

1871 The University of Newcastle was originally formed by Lord Armstrong as the College of Physical Science, later Armstrong College in 1904. He was twice president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

In 1876, Armstrong built the hydraulically-powered Swing Bridge. A steam engine which powered the bridge is on display at the Discovery Museum, Newcastle

1881 Living at Jesmond Hall, Jesmond (age 70 born Newcastle), Civil Engineer, Knight Companion of the Bath. With wife Margaret (age 74). Nine servants. [6]

1882 Armstrong's interests were merged with those of Charles Mitchell and Co in Sir W. G. Armstrong Mitchell and Co Ltd, with a capital of £2 million; by this time, the two companies had built about 20 ships together. The Swing bridge made it possible to create an integrated warship-building capacity at Elswick; Mitchell's yard then concentrated on merchant ships.

1883 Armstrong donated the long wooded gorge of Jesmond Dene to the people of the city of Newcastle upon Tyne, as well as Armstrong Bridge and Armstrong Park nearby.

1884 The new facilities were available by 1884. Armstrongs built great numbers of vessels for the world’s fleets, including warships, complete with armament, for the emerging Japanese navy. Armstrong gathered many excellent engineers at Elswick. Notable among them were Andrew Noble and George Wightwick Rendel, whose design of gun-mountings and hydraulic control of gun-turrets were adopted world-wide. Rendel introduced the cruiser as a naval vessel.

Armstrong also supplied the original lifting gear for Tower Bridge in London.

His last great project, begun at the age of 80, was the purchase and restoration of the huge Bamburgh Castle on the Northumberland coast, which remains in the hands of the Armstrong family.

1891 Living at Cragside Hall, Rothbury (age 80 born Newcastle), Peer, Retired Civil Engineer. With wife Margaret (age 84). Also great-nephew William H. W. Armstrong (age 27), Lieut in Yeomanry; his great-niece by marriage Winifred A. W. (age 30); his nephew John William Watson (age 63), Retired Special Pleader; his niece Margaret G. Watson (age 57); his great-niece Dorothy Watson (age 18). Also a visitor and ten servants. [7]

In 1892 Armstrong made his last appearance at the Elswick works, now employing about 13,000 men, during a visit by the king of Siam.

1893 His wife, Margaret, Lady Armstrong, died in 1893; she remains a shadowy figure. Her short local obituary mentions her unfailing support of her husband, her love of botany, and her involvement with the planting of the grounds at Jesmond Dene and Cragside. The later years of Armstrong's life were spent in his magnificent parkland mansion of Cragside now owned by the National Trust.

1897 the firm merged with Joseph Whitworth becoming Armstrong Whitworth

1900 William Armstrong died on December 27 at Cragside and is buried in Rothbury churchyard.

Lord Armstrong's generosity extended beyond his death. He left £100,000 for the building of the new Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle upon Tyne. Its original 1753 building at Forth Banks near the river Tyne were inadequate and impossible to expand. Armstrong's legacy was matched by John Hall, a local merchant, on condition that the new site at Leazes be used.

1901 Obituary [8]

THE RT. HON. LORD ARMSTRONG, whose many inventions earned for his name a world-wide fame, died on December 27, 1900, at his residence, Cragside, Rothbury, Northumberland. Born on November 26, 1810, William George Armstrong was the son of a merchant of Newcastle-on-Tyne. He was educated at Bishop Auckland, and chose the law as his profession, notwithstanding a bias towards scientific and mechanical subjects. Later, while still a member of a firm of Newcastle solicitors, he commenced his career as an inventor. In 1838, having long reflected on the enormous power available in the innumerable streams descending the hills of the North Country, he devised a hydraulic rotary engine, which he hoped might utilise some of the energy running so freely to waste. But finding that for many purposes—such as the operating of cranes on wharves—the reciprocating principle was superior to the rotary, he designed a crane in which cylinders and pistons effected every required motion. It was not till 1845, however, that opportunity arose for the realisation of his scheme, but before the end of 1846 the first hydraulic crane erected was at work on the quay at Newcastle. Meanwhile, in 1840, Armstrong published an account of his investigations on the "Electricity of Effluent Steam " -investigations which led to his invention of the "hydro-electric machine," which so greatly interested Faraday. By 1846 his discoveries and applications had attained such importance that he was in that year elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. Armstrong continued to erect hydraulic plants at various places in the country, using in every case the pressure of the town mains or the head of special reservoirs. In 1850 he introduced into his system the use of the well-known accumulator, which made hydraulic power capable of vastly wider adoption.

At the Elswick Works, then thoroughly established, but as yet wholly devoted to the manufacture of hydraulic machinery, certain experiments in gun-building were inaugurated. As a result, in 1856 Armstrong's first gun was produced. It was built by shrinking on to a steel barrel successive iron tubular shells; it was a breech-loader, and possessed poly-grooved rifling. It fired a projectile of elongated shape and with ogival head with unexampled accuracy over an unprecedented range; and so satisfactory proved its trials that Armstrong was appointed Engineer of Rifled Ordnance, was made C.B., and knighted. Within the seven years succeeding more than 3000 similar guns were added to England's armament. Unfortunately the continual recurrence of certain difficulties in the breech mechanism impelled the Government in 1863 to return to muzzle-loading guns. Sir W. Armstrong resigned his official position simultaneously. The same year he was president of the British Association at its Newcastle meeting. His address dealt with the then already threatening depletion of the British coalfields, and with the extravagant methods of coal users. When the Royal Commission on this same question was shortly afterwards ordered, Sir W. Armstrong was nominated to sit as a member.

Various honours fell to him about this time. He was in 1862 made an LL.D. of Cambridge, in 1870 a D.C.L. by Oxford, and in 1873 the Albert medal of the Society of Arts was awarded him. But there came to him a greater triumph when, in 1880, the Government readopted the breech-loading and poly-groove rifling principles of Armstrong. The following year, in his capacity as president of the Mechanical Section of the York meeting of the British Association, he again called attention to the more efficient utilisation of natural sources of energy. He raised a hope that the development of the thermopile might lead to a wholesale utilisation of solar energy. He estimated that the heat received by an acre of ground in the tropics would, if wholly converted, yield mechanical energy at the average rate of 4000 horse-power. In 1882 he was elected president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and was elevated to the peerage in 1887—the year after his unsuccessful parliamentary contest of Newcastle against Mr. John Morley. In 1897, when in his eighty-seventh year, lie published an illustrated book, entitled " Electrical Movements in Air and Water," which discussed certain phenomena he had observed in his electrical experiments conducted fifty years previously. He received numerous foreign decorations. He was a Grand Officer of the Order of San Maurizo e Lazzaro of Italy, and a Knight Commander of the Orders of the Dannebrog of Denmark, of Charles III. of Spain, of Francis Joseph of Austria, of the Rising Sun of Japan, and of the White Elephant of Siam.

He was an original member of the Iron and Steel Institute, and in 1891 was awarded the Bessemer Gold Medal. In presenting the medal, the President, Sir Frederick Abel, dwelt upon the importance of Lord Armstrong's many scientific investigations bearing upon the properties of iron and steel, such as his experiments on the elasticity and the first moving-point of iron and steel. Especially important was his work in connection with the tempering and treatment of steel, that had led to the introduction of the oil-hardening process.

1901 Obituary [9]

LORD ARMSTRONG was born at Shieldfield, Newcastle-on-Tyne, on the 26th November, 1810, and died on the 27th December, 1900, aged 90 years.

The chief incidents in his long and illustrious life are so well known that it is difficult to invest, an account of them with any novelty. His father, Alderman Armstrong, was a corn merchant in Newcastle, and his mother was a daughter of Mr. Potter, of Walbottle Hall. Alderman Armstrong prospered in his business, was a good mathematician, collected a valuable mathematical library, and contributed to the mathematical diaries of the time. He interested himself in municipal affairs, and became Mayor of Newcastle.

William George Armstrong was one of two children - an only sister, some years his senior, became the wife of the late Baron Watson of the Court of Exchequer - and he received, according to the ideas of the day, a good education, first at a private school in Newcastle, afterwards at Whickham, and subsequently at the grammar school at Bishop Auckland. He passed from school into a well-known Newcastle solicitor’s office, and it was during his leisure hours that he exercised his inventive instincts in the direction of mechanical investigations and studies.

The frequently accepted idea that Lord Armstrong was a self-made man, who rose from an obscure position to greatness, is inaccurate. It is quite true that, so far as his engineering reputation is concerned, his genius carried him to an eminence which was almost unique ; but, so far as mere worldly prosperity goes, he was born, as has been mentioned, in comparatively affluent circumstances, and the property which he inherited was considerable. The student of character will notice with interest that no spur of poverty was necessary to stimulate Lord Armstrong’s wonderful energy. He worked, he studied, he experimented, almost up to the end of his life, because to do so was part of his nature.

His earliest and his latest researches lay in the direction of electrical science. An engineer employed at Cramlington Colliery in charge of a fixed engine, experienced a somewhat severe electric shock on approaching his hand to the lever of the safety valve, he being in contact with a jet of steam escaping from a leak in his boiler. The experience was so novel that it attracted considerable attention, but the experiments which Lord Armstrong made led him to give the true explanation of the phenomenon.

His experiments were communicated to the Philosophical Magazine in 1842 and 1843, and in 1844 his hydro-electric machine, based upon these experiments, was exhibited to the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle-on-Tyne. His larger machine, made for the London Polytechnic, was the most powerful machine then known for producing electricity of high tension. Almost immediately after the production of the hydro-electric machine, Lord Armstrong was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Among the signatures to his certificate may be noticed the names of Grove, Wheatstone, and Faraday. At his death in 1900, he was, with two exceptions, the Senior Fellow.

The formation of the Whittle Dene Water Co, by which to this day Newcastle is supplied with water, was due to Lord Armstrong’s initiative. By his energy and ability the opposition which the scheme at first excited was overcome, and for some time he acted as Secretary of the Company, but his connection with Whittle Dene led to results little anticipated when Lord Armstrong originated the scheme. Whittle Dene Reservoir was nearly 400 feet above high-water mark, and the energy stored up in the water-pipes with this considerable head at the level of the Newcastle quays soon suggested to him the utilization of this source of power. By permission of the Newcastle Town Council, he erected, at his own expense, the first hydraulic crane, which proved at once a great success, and soon excited the attention of engineers.

One of the first to inspect the crane was the well-known Mr. Jesse Hartley, the Engineer-in-Chief of the Liverpool Docks, who was exceedingly sceptical as to the miraculous stories told about the crane, and was somewhat rough with the man in charge, who had become remarkably skilful in his manipulation of the crane. 'Hydraulic Jack,' as the man was facetiously called, asked Mr. Hartley what he would give him if he let the load drop and picked it up again. Some trifling reward was promised, when the load was suddenly allowed to drop at great speed, as suddenly stopped and raised again smoothly and rapidly to its starting position. Mr. Hartley declared the crane to be exactly what he wanted. He gave an order for the Liverpool Docks, the forerunner of the considerable work done by Lord Armstrong’s firm for that city.

The first hydraulic cranes ordered were manufactured at Messrs. Watson’s works in Newcastle, and at works elsewhere, but the demand for cranes and other hydraulic machinery increased so rapidly that in 1847 Lord Armstrong resigned the secretaryship of the Whittle Dene Water Company, and devoted his whole attention to starting the Elswick Engine Works. It is needless to say that he no longer practised as a solicitor, and indeed it was inevitable that the combination of legal work and scientific engineering could not satisfy a man whose bent was so strongly set in the direction of mechanical invention.

His early partners at Elswick were Mr. Donkin, Addison Potter, George Cruddas, and R. Lambert, and the support they gave to, and the trust they reposed in, the genius of their partner and manager never faltered during the many difficulties which were necessarily met with in works newly started and occupied with a novel manufacture. With the single exception of Mr. Cruddas, the names of Lord Armstrong’s early friends and partners have long since disappeared from the councils of the firm.

Up to 1849 the cranes erected by the Elswick firm were worked by water with a natural head, but as the demand for hydraulic cranes increased, the Elswick Works were asked to supply cranes and other hydraulic machinery for situations where sufficient pressure was not obtainable. This led Lord Armstrong to devise an apparatus, which he named an 'Accumulator,' consisting of a cylinder of dimensions varying with the requirements of the case, in which worked a ram carrying a load usually adjusted to give to the water pumped into the cylinder by a steam-engine, a pressure of about 700 lbs. on the square inch. This contrivance had the double advantage of allowing hydraulic machinery to be employed in any situation, and it also possessed the advantages of being almost free from those fluctuations of pressure ordinarily found in water mains, and of allowing the employment of much smaller pipes. It would be out of place here to describe the innumerable applications of hydraulic power which have resulted from Lord Armstrong’s labours. Hydraulic power has been found especially useful where power is required intermittently and for comparatively short periods.

In connection with this part of Lord Armstrong’s work, it may be mentioned that on the 3rd April, 1849, he was elected an Associate of the Institution, and that his eminence in regard to hydraulic machinery was referred to as a ground for his transfer to the class of Members, which took place on the 31st JanDary, 1854, his certificate being signed, among others, by Robert Stephenson, Sir William Cubitt, Thomas Hawksley, J. M. Rendel, Sir John Rennie, George Parker Bidder, and Sir Charles Hutton Gregory. Further in the Proceedings of the Institution there are Papers by him on 'The Application of Water-Pressure as a Motive Power for Working Cranes, and other descriptions of Machinery,' in 1850, 'On the Concussion of Pump Valves,' a 1853, and 'The History of the Modern Development of Water pressure Machinery,' 1877.

On the 5th November, 1854, the severely disputed battle of Inkerman was fought. The result of the day was largely influenced by the action of Colonel, now General Sir Collingwood Dickson, V.C., who, by incredible exertion, dragged two 18-pounders up a hill where their superior power and range proved of great value. The great weight and clumsiness of these pieces of ordnance induced Lord Armstrong to consider whether equally powerful and long range guns could not be made much lighter, and in December, 1854, he had an interview with the Duke of Newcastle, then Secretary of State for War, who authorised him to submit for trial certain guns, not exceeding six in number.

The first gun, a 3-pounder, was tried in 1855, giving very satisfactory results, and Lord Armstrong pointed out that so far as range was concerned, he had succeeded in obtaining with 7” elevation the same range as that obtained with the smooth bore 68-pounder of the Service. This gun is still to be seen at Elswick.

But it was desired that a gun should be submitted which, so far as weight was concerned, would compare with the 9-pounder of the Service. This gun, an 18-pounder, was submitted in July, 1857, and in February, 1858, the Superintendent of Experiments reports 'that the very extraordinary powers of range and precision of fire exhibited at Shoeburyness, from the breech-loading gun of Mr. Armstrong’s invention, appear to afford a reasonable expectation that artillery will not only regain that influence in the field of which to a certain extent the recent introduction of rifled small arms has deprived it, but that that influence will be most materially increased.'

Lord Panmure, who was then Secretary of State for War, expressed himself equally strongly, and the gun was subsequently submitted to a special Committee on Rifled Cannon. This Committee, which was appointed in August, 1858, and dissolved in February, 1859, examined and reported on rifled guns submitted by seven different inventors. They reported to the War Office that these guns might be divided into two classes. The first class included the guns of Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Whitworth. As regards the second class the Committee recommended that no further expense should be incurred with respect to them. They unanimously recommended that the Armstrong gun should be introduced into the Service both on account of its accuracy, the perfection of its workmanship, and the completeness with which the ammunition and other details had been worked out.

Lord Armstrong first endeavoured to use steel in the construction of his built-up guns, but the steel of that day, in large forgings, proved too unreliable for use. The first gun submitted to the British Government had a steel barrel reinforced with coiled iron hoops, a construction which for a very considerable time was that of the Service.

On the adoption of his gun, Lord Armstrong placed his inventions at the disposal of the nation, severed for a time his connection with his firm, and received the honours of knighthood and Companionship of the Bath. He was then appointed Engineer of Rifled Ordnance and Superintendent of the Royal Gun Factories, an arrangement was made with the newly-formed Elswick Ordnance Company, and the manufacture of the new rifled guns was carried on both at Woolwich and at Elswick. This arrangement was continued until the agreement with the Elswick Ordnance Company was put an end to in 1863, when, at the request of his old partners, he resigned his Government appointment and rejoined the firm.

In this year Sir William Armstrong was President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and as member of a Committee appointed by the Steam Collieries Association of Northumberland, having had his attention directed to the great waste of coal by steam users, he devoted a considerable portion of his Presidential Address to the duration of coal supply in this country That part of his Address attracted so much attention that. a Royal Commission was appointed to investigate the subject.

It is unnecessary here to do more than allude to the Armstrong and Whitworth Committee and the artillery questions, which, at that time, so much vexed experts, but it is interesting to note that the two great rival establishments have been united for some Sears and bear the names of their great founders. It is more important to note the retrograde step which at this time was taken by the British Government. The high naval and military officers of the day considered simplicity to be all-important, and there was great difficulty in introducing even the simplest mechanical contrivance. Some defects, which might easily have been remedied, were found in parts of the breech mechanism, if due and careful attention were not given when closing, and the determination was made to revert to muzzle loading.

That determination placed this country at a serious disadvantage, and does not appear to have been reconsidered until, in 1878, the Elswick firm, guided by certain recent researches on explosives, submitted to the Government 6-inch and 8-inch guns, both breech and muzzle loading, with which velocities of over 2,100 feet per second were obtained. The highest velocities of the then Service muzzle loaders did not reach 1,600 feet per second, and the difference in energy due to the above velocities was equivalent to an increase of more than 60 per cent. But to obtain this increase with moderate pressures in the chamber, it was necessary to add largely to the length of the gun, and it soon became obvious that, in order to realize the highest energy and efficiency, a return to breech loading was a necessity.

Lord Armstrong, whose first guns were all breech loaders, and who, although Elswick made many muzzle loaders, was throughout his career a strong advocate of breech loading, played an important part in this matter. His high authority and the results which he showed to be possible had great weight with the naval and military authorities in regard to the abandonment of the now obsolete muzzle loaders.

After the conversion of the firm into a limited company, Lord Armstrong retired more and more from active management.

Questions arose from time to time into which he would enquire with all his old vigour, but unless something special was under discussion he rarely visited the works. He found in the management of his estate at Cragside, and in various scientific studies, quite sufficient occupation.

So late as 1897 he gave a discourse at one of the soirees of the Royal Society upon his recent electrical researches. Towards the close of his life he took great interest in the reconstruction of Bamburgh Castle, and spent a considerable portion of his time in superintending the work.

His vigour as an old man was wonderful. Until within two or three years of his death he preserved his strength and faculties in an extraordinary way. As a young man Lord Armstrong was considered so delicate that his life was refused by several insurance offices. In later life he amused himself by calculating how much they had lost by so refusing him. He always used to say that it was the Rothbury air which set him up, and one of the aspirations of his early manhood was to build some day a house for himself at Rothbury. His robust old age gave way in August, 1897, when an attack of illness prostrated him and left him an invalid for the few remaining years of his life. He rallied a little from time to time, but he was never able to do much more than walk about his house or drive about his grounds. Yet even when confined to his bed the clearness of his understanding was as marked as ever, and he showed no trace of any mental weakness. He survived his ninetieth birthday by a few weeks, and then, overtaken by some slight indisposition, he sank without pain and died peacefully in the last week of the nineteenth century.

He was buried, on the last day of the century which owed so much to his labours, beside the remains of his wife in Rothbury churchyard. Nobody during that century had been more closely identified with the practical and material progress of mankind. The fame of Lord Armstrong as an inventor and as an adapter of natural agencies to human ends must always rank very high. For speculative questions he had no taste at all, but .upon any practical problem which offered itself for solution, he would turn the whole force of his intellect, and work out his ideas with the greatest perseverance.

In private life he was charming, and was loved and revered by his intimate friends, though there was a certain reserve about his manner which sometimes rendered him rather formidable to strangers. A great benefactor to his native town, he once stood for Newcastle as a Unionist candidate with Viscount Ridley, for the House of Commons, but failed to secure a seat. Though a lucid writer and a good lecturer, he was not a speaker, and he lacked that surface bonhomie which aids a candidate so much. Labour troubles also had a share in his rejection. At Cragside he entertained in a princely fashion many distinguished Englishmen and foreigners. In this he was assisted by Lady Armstrong, who predeceased him by eight years.

He was raised to the Peerage in 1887, as Baron Armstrong of Cragside, and in addition to being a Companion of the Bath, held the order of Saint Maurice and Saint Lazarus of Italy, of the Dannebrog of Denmark, of Jesus Christ of Portugal, of Francis Joseph of Austria, of Charles 111. of Spain, of the Rose of Brazil, of the Dragon of China, and of the Sacred Treasure of Japan. Lord Armstrong’s connection with the Institution lasted upwards of fifty-one years. The dates of his election and transfer have already been given. He served as a Member of Council from 1856 to 1865, and again from 1871 to 1881, and in December of the latter year he was elected President. His Address, delivered on the 10th January, 1882, dealt mainly with the application of engineering to the operations of war. He had also held the offices of President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and of the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers.

The Institution of Civil Engineers awarded him a Telford Medal in 1850, while the Society of Arts gave him the Albert Medal in 1878, and the Iron and Steel Institute the Bessemer Medal in 1891.

He received the degree of LL.D. from the University of Cambridge and that of D.C.L. from Oxford and Durham.

1901 Obituary [10]

1901 Obituary [11]

The Right Hon. Lord ARMSTRONG, C.B., was born in Newcastle-on-Tyne on 26th November 1810, and was the son of Mr. W. Armstrong, a corn merchant and alderman of that city. He was educated at Bishop Auckland Grammar School, and on leaving it was articled to a well-known north country firm of solicitors, Messrs. Donkin and Stable, later studying in the office of his brother-in-law, Mr. W. H. Watson, afterwards Baron Watson, whose grandson Mr. Watson Armstrong has now succeeded to his estates.

In 1834 his legal training being completed he became junior partner in the firm which was afterwards known as Messrs. Donkin, Stable, and Armstrong. He commenced his engineering career as an amateur, making experiments in his leisure time. These distractions became so engrossing that the practice of the law grew distasteful, and in 1846 he determined to abandon it as a profession, and to cast in his lot with the mechanical pursuits which had for him so great an interest.

Mainly through the efforts of his friend, Mr. Donkin, a partnership was formed to set up an engineering business to be worked by him, consisting of Mr. Donkin, Alderman Armstrong (his father), and Messrs. Potter, Cruddas, B. Lambert, and himself, the deed of partnership being signed on 1st January 1847, and a piece of land was bought at Elswick, on which to erect the works.

His experiments bad been largely in the direction of the application of hydraulic power, and it was to the extension of machinery of this nature that he devoted his energies. One of the most important of the early orders obtained by his firm was for the hydraulic cranes at the Trafalgar goods station at Newcastle.

In 1850 the application of the loaded accumulator gave a great impetus to the work done by the firm, and the progress made in extending its field of operations was rapid.

In 1854, when the country was irritated by the events in the Crimea, he turned his attention to that branch of engineering construction with which his name will always be closely identified, namely the problem of the improvement of ordnance. At that time all service guns were cast in iron or bronze, because no means of forging them had been found. It had been shown by Professor Barlow, that once the pressure exceeded the resisting power of the material, increase in the thickness of the gun did not reduce its chances of bursting. The way in which Mr. Armstrong (as he then was) overcame the difficulty was by the plan of shrinking hoops or rings on to an inner barrel. Another method was to coil a ribbon of wrought-iron into a long helix, and then to weld it into a solid tube. This idea had been suggested by Captain Blakely, Mr. Longridge, and others.

A long controversy ensued over the claims for priority of invention of this and the subsequently reinforced wrought-iron guns designed by him. He commenced by constructing a small gun — a 3-pounder, which met with such success that experiments on a larger scale were recommended. The gun was consequently bored up to a 5-pounder; and as it still gave excellent results an 18-pounder was put in hand, and then a 32-pounder. In 1859 he made a present of his invention to the nation, and was created Director of Rifled Ordnance, with a salary of £2,000 a year. He also received the honour of a Knighthood, and was created a Companion of the Bath. In 1863 he retired from his official position, and devoted himself to the work of his firm at Elswick.

The advances made in the carriages and mountings of ordnance have been no less remarkable than those appertaining to the gun itself. They were made almost entirely of wood; sometimes the rear wheels were left out, so that the back part would slide on chocks of wood. In 1861 iron was substituted for wood, and vast improvements were made. From 1860 to 1880 guns had advanced from the 80-pounder of .5 tons up to the 16-inch gun weighing 81 tons — the greatest of the "Woolwich Infants " — but even larger weapons, the four 100-ton guns of nearly 171 inches bore, were completed in 1878 at the Elswick Works. Such guns demanded an enormous power to command and control them, and here Sir William Armstrong devised hydraulic machinery for the purpose.

In 1858 he joined this Institution, and in the same year read a Paper on Water-Pressure Machinery. In 1859 he was elected Vice-President, and President in 1861, when he delivered an interesting Address in which he reviewed engineering developments both in peace and war, and dwelt upon a great engineering want, namely, the ability to produce economically large blocks of homogeneous metal having the quality of wrought-iron.

In his Address on re-election as President in 1862 he contrasted the Great Exhibition of that year with its prototype in 1851, pointing out the great advances shown in the construction of arms and armour.

In his third Presidential Address in 1869, the Centenary of the Steam-Engine of Watt, he reviewed the progress made and dealt with the construction of the Atlantic cable, the Suez Canal, and the first railway across the American Continent. The question of our coal supply also received notice, and the influence of Mechanical Engineering on war materiel was discussed at length. His kindly interest in the work of others, and his own far-seeing views are patent in every page of these three Addresses, and although the most recent was delivered thirty-two years ago, they all throw much light upon modern problems.

In 1868 he contributed a Paper on Hydraulic Machinery, and in 1869 one on the Hydraulic Swing Bridge over the River Ouse. He was an enthusiastic worker in purely scientific work, particularly in electricity, and in quite recent years he carried out a number of remarkable and beautiful experiments on the high-tension discharge. Many of these experiments are described and illustrated in an elaborate Monograph which he presented to the Library of the Institution4 His investigation into the generation of electricity by means of an escaping jet of steam is well known; and on this principle he constructed his hydro-electric machine, which consisted of an insulated boiler from which steam at high pressure was allowed to escape through nozzles. This discovery secured his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society at the early age of thirty-two.

For many years he lived at Jesmond, but in 1863 he purchased a large tract of rocky and rugged land near Rothbury, Northumberland, and built for himself on it Cragside, a mansion in the Elizabethan style; and in 1891 he purchased the celebrated Castle of Bamburgh on the Northumberland coast, which he restored on a magnificent scale. In 1887, on his creation as Baron, he took the title of Lord Armstrong of Cragside.

He was a fellow of the Royal Society, Honorary LL.D. of Cambridge, Honorary D.C.L. of Oxford, and Honorary M.E. of Dublin. He received the Albert Medal of the Society of Arts for his inventions in hydraulic machinery, the Bessemer gold medal of the Iron and Steel Institute for his services to the steel industry, and the Telford Medal from the Institution of Civil Engineers. He was also the recipient of decorations and Orders of Knighthood from the Sovereigns of Austria, Denmark, Italy, Spain, China, Japan, and Siam. He was President of the British Association at Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1863, when he delivered his celebrated Address on the duration of our coal supply, which led to the appointment of a Royal Commission. He was also President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1881.

His death took place at his residence, Cragside, on 27th December 1900, at the age of ninety.

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. 1841 Census
  2. 1851 Census
  3. 1858 Institution of Mechanical Engineers
  4. 1861 Census
  5. 1871 Census
  6. 1881 Census
  7. 1891 Census
  8. 1901 Iron and Steel Institute: Obituaries
  9. 1901 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries
  10. The Engineer 1901/01/04
  11. 1901 Institution of Mechanical Engineers: Obituaries