William Armstrong is my favourite eminent Victorian inventor, maybe because he was a Geordie like myself, born in Newcastle in 1810. His house at Cragside – the house where modern living began, according to the blurb but perfectly true – is my favourite building too. I feel so at home there that I’ve often speculated whether I was him in a past life.
As a child, William was frequently sick and used to spend many hours at home making toy machines. I used to feign illness a lot as well, so I could avoid bloody football and rugby and stay in bed to read my dinosaur books. He used weights attached to long pieces of string that he would hang over the banisters to investigate power and movement. I remember executing my brother’s stuffed panda by wrapping a pyjama cord around its neck, reading it the last rites and then pushing it out for the long drop from the stair head balcony. The parallels mount up, you see. Spooky, isn’t it?
While he was at school in Bishop Auckland, he used to visit the local engineering works regularly and became friends with the boss. He fell for his daughter and married her in 1835. By now he was lawyer but was more interested in the new mechanics, which he studied in his spare time. I was a programmer by that age but used my spare time to study archaeology.
Armstrong’s fascination with using the power of water to drive industrial machinery originated when he was on a trout fishing trip to North Yorkshire. He was contemplating an old water mill and it occurred to him that only a very small part of the water power was being used to actually turn the wheel, and that if the water was in a single column it would have much greater force.
He spent the following three years creating the first rotary hydraulic engine with his mate Henry Watson. By the way, the parallels with my own illustrious career have ended by this point. Armstrong was good at attacking opportunities, which I never was. By the time I get used to entertaining a new possibility and have mulled over its various advantages and drawback it has long since passed on to a more worthy and practical carrier.
For instance, in 1840 he read the news that a worker, William Patterson, had received an electric shock whilst operating a high-pressure steam engine in Cramlington Colliery. I would have merely raised an eyebrow, sipped my drink and turned the page, but Armstrong immediately investigated the circumstances and created a hydro-electric machine that generated electricity using high-pressure steam. He bought and extended Cragside on the money he subsequently raked in and powered it by electricity which was generated by machines in the ravine below the house.
To paraphrase the Prelude to Middlemarch:
Here and there is born a William Armstrong, founder of nothing, whose loving heart-beats and sobs after an unattained success tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centring in some long-recognizable deed.
That’s my excuse, anyway…