Sir William George Armstrong

William George Armstrong was born on the 26th of November 1810 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne,  the second child and only son of William Armstrong (1778–1857), corn merchant and local politician, and Ann (formerly Potter).

He developed an interest in things mechanical while still at schools in Newcastle, Whickham and Bishop Auckland, but on leaving school his father persuaded him to take articles under his friend, Armorer Donkin, furthering his law studies in London under the tutelage of his brother-in-law, William Henry Watson, later Baron Watson (1796–1860). He rejoined Donkin in 1833 after five years with Watson and was made a partner in the firm in 1835, renamed Messrs Donkin, Stable, and Armstrong.

In 1835 observing what he saw as the inefficiency of an overshot water wheel was the beginning of his interest in hydraulic power. In the 1840s in widening his scientific interests he did experimental work on electrostatics that led to him being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1846

In 1845 Armstrong proposed to the Newcastle Corporation that the excess water pressure in the lower part of town could be used to power a specially-adapted Quayside crane (adapted by himself). Armstrong claimed that his hydraulic crane could unload ships faster and more cheaply than conventional cranes. The success of his crane led him to set up a business manufacturing cranes and hydraulic equipment. Armstrong was responsible for inventing the hydraulic accumulator.

In 1847 W. G. Armstrong & Company bought 5.5 acres (22,000 square metres) of land alongside the river at Elswick, near Newcastle, and began to build a factory there. In 1850 the company produced 45 cranes and two years later, 75. It averaged 100 cranes per year for the rest of the century. To begin over 300 men were employed at the works but by 1863 this had risen to 3,800.

In 1854 Armstrong invented the Armstrong Gun. He had heard of the problems the British had during the Crimean War of manoeuvering its heavy field guns. He built a breech-loading gun with a strong, rifled barrel made from wrought iron wrapped around a steel inner lining, designed to fire a shell rather than a ball. Armstrong surrendered the patent to the British Government and was knighted in 1859.

Ten years after the invention of the Armstrong Gun, Armstrong turned his attention towards naval guns. He paid for the Swing Bridge in Newcastle to be built to allow ships to have their guns fitted at Elswick. Elswick was the only factory in the world that could build a battleship and arm it completely. An important customer of the Elswick yard was Japan, which took several cruisers (some of which defeated the Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905). It was claimed that every Japanese gun used in the battle was provided by Elswick.

From 1863 Armstrong became less involved in the day to day running of his company and he began developing the Cragside estate,  moving there permanently in 1875. He entertained several eminent guests there, including the Shah of Persia, the King of Siam, the Prime Minister of China and the Prince and Princess of Wales.

Armstrong was interested in the city of Newcastle and the region. He was one of those successfully campaigning to establish the College of Physical Science – a forerunner of Newcastle University – opened in 1871, and he gave £11,500 towards the building of Newcastle’s Hancock Natural History Museum, which was completed in 1882. In 1878 Armstrong presented the 93 acre Armstrong Park, to the city, followed in 1884 by Jesmond Dene and its banqueting hall.

Armstrong’s last great project, begun in 1894, was the purchase and restoration of Bamburgh Castle on the Northumberland coast, which remains in the hands of the Armstrong family. In 1901 his heir gave £100,000 for the building of the new Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Armstrong was created Baron Armstrong of Cragside in June 1887 – he was usually thereafter referred to as Lord Armstrong.

He became a member of the North of England Mining Institute and Mechanical Engineers in 1866,  when mechanical engineers were first able to join the Institute. He was then a Vice President from 1866-69, President from 1872-75 and, as a past President, a member of Council for many years after that.

He died at  Cragside on the 27th December 1900 at the age of 90.

Armstrong, Sir W.G. Presidential address [NEIMME] Transactions – North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers 22 1872-73, 39-56

 See also the article in Wikipedia

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