The eccentric engineer

Edward Harrison saved thousands of lives on the toxic battlegrounds of the Great War. E&T recalls this tragic and scandalously uncelebrated engineer.

Edward Harrison had not intended to join the Royal Engineers, he had always wanted to have a quiet life as a pharmacist. The conjunction of the two, however, makes him one of the most important but shamefully uncelebrated figures in modern warfare.

Harrison had shown an aptitude for chemistry from the moment he enrolled at the School of Pharmacy in 1891, and in 1894 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Chemical Society. His particular talent lay in analysing chemical concoctions and, having set up in business as an independent analytical chemist, one of his first triumphs was his British Medical Association sponsored investigation into the contents of some of the many ‘proprietary medicines’ which promised improbable cures from unlikely ingredients.

His report, ‘Secret Remedies: what they Cost and what they Contain’, and its sequel helped to control and eventually suppress the fraudulent patent medicine market.

Harrison’s career as a chemical detective was cut short in 1914, with the outbreak of the First World War. Indeed he was eager to give up his work in order to enlist. Sadly, at 47 he was two years above the maximum age for the army and so was repeatedly turned down. In 1915, he struck lucky, however - if being offered a part in the Great War can be considered ‘lucky’ - and, having lied about his age, was accepted as a private in the 23rd (1st Sportsmen’s) battalion, Royal Fusiliers.

Harrison’s interest and expertise in chemistry had been noted by the army and, following the first use of chlorine gas by the Germans during an attack in Belgium in April 1915, he was transferred to the Royal Engineers. They had been asked to form a Chemists’ Corp with the urgent job of producing a respirator for British troops, who at the time were simply advised to put a wet handkerchief over their face in the event of a gas attack. So it was that Harrison came back from France with a promotion to the rank of temporary second lieutenant. He set to work in the supposedly much safer Millbank offices of the Royal Army Medical College.

The job in hand was both pressing and complex. The army required a respirator that could not only be carried easily by troops, but which could also deal with a number of possible gases, of which chlorine, phosgene and hydrogen cyanide were considered the most likely from a long list of over 70. Existing researchers at Millbank were trying to counter this deadly cocktail with an impregnated flannelette hood.

Harrison quickly put his analytical abilities and his engineering genius to work on the problem, realising that the hood was never going to be able to achieve what they were asking of it.

With the aid of academic chemists at Oxford, a series of chemical countermeasures to each poisonous gas were devised and impregnated into filters. These had to be quickly tested for safety and efficiency and, against the advice of many of his more cautious colleagues, Harrison took the decision to test them on himself as he sat in sealed, gas-filled rooms.

The result of his extraordinary labours was the Harrison Tower, the prototype for nearly every gas mask that followed. It consisted of a filter box containing impregnated discs to counter each potential threat which could be replaced when exhausted and changed to cope with different gases. This box was then attached to a hood, with inhalation and exhalation valves.

An army service version of the Tower first appeared in February 1916 as the ‘Large Box Respirator’ and was immediately issued to 200,000 machine-gunners and artillerymen. A smaller version - the Small Box Respirator - more suitable for frontline infantry, was issued from August of that year and was soon part of the general kit.

Harrison could (had he been immodest) have prided himself on the thousands of lives his respirators saved and the many more thousands of terrible injuries they prevented. However, his own life was by this time tinged with tragedy, following the news of the death of his eldest son on the Somme, on 30 July - the moment of his own triumph.

Harrison redoubled his efforts for the remaining years of the war but those early, desperate experiments on himself with poisonous gas had critically weakened his constitution. In October 1918, he contracted influenza, which developed into pneumonia, and his ravaged lungs were unable to cope with it. He died, aged just 47, on 4 November, a week before the Armistice was announced.

Churchill, then minister of munitions, wrote a personal letter to his widow, in which he said that Harrison was about to be promoted Brigadier-General in charge of all chemical warfare at the time of his death and that “it is in large measure thanks to him that our troops have been given effectual protection from the German poisonous gases”.

Justin Pollard’s ‘Secret Britain: The Hidden Bits of British History’ is published by John Murray


Winner of the caption competition in issue 1 of 2010 is Simon Baker, who thought that Sir William Armstrong’s butler is telling him: “Sir, there’s a gentleman on the telephone who says you can save money by changing your electricity supplier”.

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