In the early nineteenth century Newcastle-upon-Tyne was a hotbed of intellectual and scientific enquiry, centred around the Literary and Philosophical Society. Into this environment William John Armstrong (1810-1900) was born, the son of a merchant’s clerk and a coal-owner’s daughter. His fascination with water and his aptitude for experimentation was to propel him onwards and upwards in the world of Victorian engineering.
Armstrong demonstrated a model of his new hydraulic crane at the ‘Lit & Phil’ in 1845. Two years later he was using them at his works at Elswick on the Tyne.
Armstrong went on to build a huge shipbuilding, hydraulic machinery and armaments business, employing a workforce of 25,000 at Elswick. His company created the Japanese navy as well as helping to quench the thirst for armaments of the British Empire. He was the first engineer to be raised to the peerage.
Henrietta Heald has recently published the first full-scale biography of Armstrong, entitled William Armstrong, Magician of the North. Heald argues that his reputation as an arms manufaturer has, in recent times, overshadowed his other achievements.
But Armstrong’s inventions were also put to pacific ends. The hydraulic mechnanisms he created still move Tower Bridge in London and the Swing Bridge in Newcastle. His country house, Cragside, in Northumberland, was the first to be lit by hydro-electricity. Armstrong was also a pioneer in the investigation of solar power.