1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Armstrong, William George Armstrong, Baron
ARMSTRONG, WILLIAM GEORGE ARMSTRONG, Baron (1810–1900), British inventor, founder of the Elswick manufacturing works, was born on the 26th of November 1810, at Newcastle-on-Tyne, and was educated at a school in Bishop Auckland. The profession which he adopted was that of a solicitor, and from 1833 to 1847 he was engaged in active practice in Newcastle as a member of the firm of Donkin, Stable & Armstrong. His sympathies, however, were always with mechanical and scientific pursuits, and several of his inventions date from a time anterior to his final abandonment of the law. In 1841–1843 he published several papers on the electricity of effluent steam. This subject he was led to study by the experience of a colliery engineman, who noticed that he received a sharp shock on exposing one hand to a jet of steam issuing from a boiler with which his other hand was in contact, and the inquiry was followed by the invention of the “hydro-electric” machine, a powerful generator of electricity, which was thought worthy of careful investigation by Faraday. The question of the utilization of water-power had engaged his attention even earlier, and in 1839 he invented an improved rotary water motor. Soon afterwards he designed a hydraulic crane, which contained the germ of all the hydraulic machinery for which he and Elswick were subsequently to become famous. This machine depended simply on the pressure of water acting directly in a cylinder on a piston, which was connected with suitable multiplying gear. In the first example, which was erected on the quay at Newcastle in 1846, the necessary pressure was obtained from the ordinary water mains of the town; but the merits and advantages of the device soon became widely appreciated, and a demand arose for the erection of cranes in positions where the pressure afforded by the mains was insufficient. Of course pressure could always be obtained by the aid of special reservoirs, but to build these was not always desirable, or even practicable. Hence, when in 1850 a hydraulic installation was required for a new ferry station at New Holland, on the Humber estuary, the absence of water mains of any kind, coupled with the prohibitive cost of a special reservoir owing to the character of the soil, impelled him to invent a fresh piece of apparatus, the “accumulator,” which consists of a large cylinder containing a piston that can be loaded to give any desired pressure, the water being pumped in below it by a steam-engine or other prime mover. This simple device may be looked upon as the crown of the hydraulic system, since by its various modifications the installation of hydraulic power became possible in almost any situation. In particular, it was rendered practicable on board ship, and its application to the manipulation of heavy naval guns and other purposes on warships was not the least important of Armstrong’s achievements.
The Elswick works were originally founded for the manufacture of this hydraulic machinery, but it was not long before they became the birthplace of a revolution in gunmaking; indeed, could nothing more be placed to Armstrong’s credit than their establishment, his name would still be worthy of remembrance. Modern artillery dates from about 1855, when Armstrong’s first gun made its appearance. This weapon embodied all the essential features which distinguish the ordnance of to-day from the cannon of the middle ages—it was built up of rings of metal shrunk upon an inner steel barrel; it was loaded at the breech; it was rifled; and it threw, not a round ball, but an elongated projectile with ogival head. The guns constructed on this principle yielded such excellent results, both in range and accuracy, that they were adopted by the British government in 1859, Armstrong himself being appointed engineer of rifled ordnance and receiving the honour of knighthood. At the same time the Elswick Ordnance Company was formed to manufacture the guns under the supervision of Armstrong, who, however, had no financial interest in the concern; it was merged in the Elswick Engineering Works four years later. Great Britain thus originated a principle of gun construction which has since been universally followed, and obtained an armament superior to that possessed by any other country at that time. But while there was no doubt as to the shooting capacities of these guns, defects in the breech mechanism soon became equally patent, and in a few years caused a reversion to muzzle-loading. Armstrong resigned his position in 1863, and for seventeen years the government adhered to the older method of loading, in spite of the improvements which experiment and research at Elswick and elsewhere had during that period produced in the mechanism and performance of heavy guns. But at last Armstrong’s results could no longer be ignored; and wire-wound breech-loading guns were received back into the service in 1880. The use of steel wire for the construction of guns was one of Armstrong’s early ideas. He perceived that to coil many turns of thin wire round an inner barrel was a logical extension of the large hooped method already mentioned, and in conjunction with I. K. Brunel, was preparing to put the plan to practical test when the discovery that it had already been patented caused him to abandon his intention, until about 1877. This incident well illustrates the ground of his objection to the British system of patent law, which he looked upon as calculated to stifle invention and impede progress; the patentees in this case did not manage to make a practical success of their invention themselves, but the existence of prior patents was sufficient to turn him aside from a path which conducted him to valuable results when afterwards, owing to the expiry of those patents, he was free to pursue it as he pleased.
Lord Armstrong, who was raised to the peerage in 1887, was the author of A Visit to Egypt (1873), and Electric Movement in Air and Water (1897), besides many professional papers. He died on the 27th of December 1900, at Rothbury, Northumberland. His title became extinct, but his grand-nephew and heir, W. H. A. F. Watson-Armstrong (b. 1863), was in 1903 created Baron Armstrong of Bamburgh and Cragside.