The Eccentric Engineer

E&T uncovers the less known side to Sir William Armstrong, the engineer responsible for the invention of the Armstrong gun.

Opinions about arms manufacturers tend to fall into one of two camps. Those wielding their products tend to be all in favour of them, while those who find the products pointing at them are less enthusiastic. One thing that both sides would agree on, however, is that armament manufacturers are remarkably innovative and they have made the odd breakthrough that has been of great benefit to humanity - even if accidentally.

This brings me to Sir William Armstrong. Armstrong is probably best known today as founder of one of Britain’s most successful armaments companies and the engineer responsible for the invention of the Armstrong gun. Indeed his creation of the first large, rifled artillery pieces - to replace cast-iron cannon - would ensure his fortune, greatly bolster the prospects of the British Empire and result in him becoming the first engineer ever to be ennobled. A grateful government even took out patents on his invention in his name and then prevented their publication so as to ensure foreign powers wouldn’t benefit.

Armstrong, though, had not set out to be an armament manufacturer. What really interested him was water, and it had done ever since, on a fishing trip in his youth, he had watched an overshoot waterwheel and marvelled at its inefficiency.

“I was lounging idly about, watching an old water-mill, when it occurred to me what a small part of the power of the water was used in driving the wheel, and then I thought how great would be the force of even a small quantity of water if its energy were only concentrated in one column.”

Inspired to create better devices, he invented a water-powered rotary engine and, undeterred when no one took an interest in this, went on to found a business making hydraulic cranes. This was what Armstrong thought his career would be all about - renewable energy.

It would be fair to say that the 19th century was not an era where renewable energy sources were viewed as important - unless you were Armstrong. He was one of the first industrialists to realise that our dependency on coal was using up a finite resource. In his Presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1863 he predicted that Britain would cease to be a coal producing power within 200 years. Coal was “used wastefully and extravagantly in all its applications”.

Armstrong was interested in power that would last forever. He suggested that solar energy would one day replace the steam engine and calculated that solar energy falling on an acre of the tropics could usefully produce 4,000 horsepower for nine hours a day - although he didn’t have a method for extracting this energy.

What he could harness, however, was water power, and his monument to this would be his own house at Cragside in the Debdon valley. It was a site that he had visited many years before and, taking his first holiday for many years there he found the air healthful and, more importantly, the waters of the Debdon burn ripe for tapping.

Armstrong dammed the Debdon burn high in the hills, creating a head of water (later greatly added to) that he put to use powering labour-saving devices in his house. There was a hydraulic spit turner, a servants lift and, remarkably, a dish washer. Leading on from his early interest in electrostatics, Armstrong also harnessed water power to generate electricity making his the first house to benefit from hydro-electric power.

It was this that really made the house a marvel, with its electric dinner gong, fire alarm internal telephone system and electric arc lighting. For Christmas 1880 the whole of the lighting system was then upgraded with the world’s first full installation of his friend Joseph Swan’s incandescent light-bulb system. One visitor to the house summed up the general view when he said that Cragside was “the palace of a modern magician.”

Armstrong died childless in 1900 and for much of the 20th century his house and his ideas fell into disuse - although his guns did not. With the gifting of Cragside to the National Trust 1977 the house has at least been brought back to its former glory.


Winner of the caption competition in issue 20 of 2009 is Mark Warren: ‘Where am I going to find a CFL to replace this filament?’

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