Armstrong, Sir William George, Baron Armstrong of Cragside

Armstrong, Sir William George, Baron Armstrong of Cragside
b. 26 November 1810 Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne, England
d. 27 December 1900 Cragside, Northumbria, England
English inventor, engineer and entrepreneur in hydraulic engineering, shipbuilding and the production of artillery.
The only son of a corn merchant, Alderman William Armstrong, he was educated at private schools in Newcastle and at Bishop Auckland Grammar School. He then became an articled clerk in the office of Armorer Donkin, a solicitor and a friend of his father. During a fishing trip he saw a water-wheel driven by an open stream to work a marble-cutting machine. He felt that its efficiency would be improved by introducing the water to the wheel in a pipe. He developed an interest in hydraulics and in electricity, and became a popular lecturer on these subjects. From 1838 he became friendly with Henry Watson of the High Bridge Works, Newcastle, and for six years he visited the Works almost daily, studying turret clocks, telescopes, papermaking machinery, surveying instruments and other equipment being produced. There he had built his first hydraulic machine, which generated 5 hp when run off the Newcastle town water-mains. He then designed and made a working model of a hydraulic crane, but it created little interest. In 1845, after he had served this rather unconventional apprenticeship at High Bridge Works, he was appointed Secretary of the newly formed Whittle Dene Water Company. The same year he proposed to the town council of Newcastle the conversion of one of the quayside cranes to his hydraulic operation which, if successful, should also be applied to a further four cranes. This was done by the Newcastle Cranage Company at High Bridge Works. In 1847 he gave up law and formed W.G.Armstrong \& Co. to manufacture hydraulic machinery in a works at Elswick. Orders for cranes, hoists, dock gates and bridges were obtained from mines; docks and railways.
Early in the Crimean War, the War Office asked him to design and make submarine mines to blow up ships that were sunk by the Russians to block the entrance to Sevastopol harbour. The mines were never used, but this set him thinking about military affairs and brought him many useful contacts at the War Office. Learning that two eighteen-pounder British guns had silenced a whole Russian battery but were too heavy to move over rough ground, he carried out a thorough investigation and proposed light field guns with rifled barrels to fire elongated lead projectiles rather than cast-iron balls. He delivered his first gun in 1855; it was built of a steel core and wound-iron wire jacket. The barrel was multi-grooved and the gun weighed a quarter of a ton and could fire a 3 lb (1.4 kg) projectile. This was considered too light and was sent back to the factory to be rebored to take a 5 lb (2.3 kg) shot. The gun was a complete success and Armstrong was then asked to design and produce an equally successful eighteen-pounder. In 1859 he was appointed Engineer of Rifled Ordnance and was knighted. However, there was considerable opposition from the notably conservative officers of the Army who resented the intrusion of this civilian engineer in their affairs. In 1862, contracts with the Elswick Ordnance Company were terminated, and the Government rejected breech-loading and went back to muzzle-loading. Armstrong resigned and concentrated on foreign sales, which were successful worldwide.
The search for a suitable proving ground for a 12-ton gun led to an interest in shipbuilding at Elswick from 1868. This necessitated the replacement of an earlier stone bridge with the hydraulically operated Tyne Swing Bridge, which weighed some 1450 tons and allowed a clear passage for shipping. Hydraulic equipment on warships became more complex and increasing quantities of it were made at the Elswick works, which also flourished with the reintroduction of the breech-loader in 1878. In 1884 an open-hearth acid steelworks was added to the Elswick facilities. In 1897 the firm merged with Sir Joseph Whitworth \& Co. to become Sir W.G.Armstrong Whitworth \& Co. After Armstrong's death a further merger with Vickers Ltd formed Vickers Armstrong Ltd.
In 1879 Armstrong took a great interest in Joseph Swan's invention of the incandescent electric light-bulb. He was one of those who formed the Swan Electric Light Company, opening a factory at South Benwell to make the bulbs. At Cragside, his mansion at Roth bury, he installed a water turbine and generator, making it one of the first houses in England to be lit by electricity.
Armstrong was a noted philanthropist, building houses for his workforce, and endowing schools, hospitals and parks. His last act of charity was to purchase Bamburgh Castle, Northumbria, in 1894, intending to turn it into a hospital or a convalescent home, but he did not live long enough to complete the work.
Principal Honours and Distinctions
Knighted 1859. FRS 1846. President, Institution of Mechanical Engineers; Institution of Civil Engineers; British Association for the Advancement of Science 1863. Baron Armstrong of Cragside 1887.
Further Reading
E.R.Jones, 1886, Heroes of Industry', London: Low.
D.J.Scott, 1962, A History of Vickers, London: Weidenfeld \& Nicolson.

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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