William George Armstrong was born on the 26th of November 1810 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He was the son of a former treasurer of the Borough of Newcastle.
Armstrong was educated at Dr Bruce’s Academy in Newcastle and later at Edinburgh University. He served at Killingworth and Jarrow collieries then later Wingate colliery in Durham. Beginning in 1870 and spanning 30 years, Armstrong acted as consulting mining engineer to the North Eastern Railway Company.
In the North of England, Armstrong is regarded in as “the father of the coal trade”. During his life he acted as a consulting mining engineer to Bolckow, Vaughan & Company, the Stavely Coal and Iron Company, the Sheepbridge Coal and Iron Company, and the New Tredegar Company.
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 manuevering 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. Armsrong surrendered the patent to the British Government and was kinghted 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 apan, 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 moved to Cragside. Armstrong entertained several eminent guests at Cragside, 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. Newcastle University was originally founded by Armstrong in 1871 and he gave £11,500 towards the building of Newcastle’s Hancock Natural History Museum, which was completed in 1882. 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.
William George Armstrong was elected as President of the North of England Mining Institute and Mechanical Engineers between 1872 and 1875. He was an original member of the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers. He died of a heart condition at Chester-le-Street on the 27th December 1900 at the age of 90.
See also the article in Wikipedia