Armstrong, William George 1810 - 1900

English; British

(1810-1900) Baron Armstrong of Cragside, industrialist

William George Armstrong, visionary inventor, engineer, scientist and businessman, was born on the 26th November 1810 at 9 Pleasant Row, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne. He was educated at Bishop Auckland grammar school in co. Durham between 1826 and 1828, when he was a regular visitor to the works of William Ramshaw, builder and engineer. Armstrong married his daughter Margaret Ramshaw (1807–1893) in 1835. Armstrong started his career in law and upon completing legal training in 1834 he became junior partner in the firm of Messrs. Donkin, Stable, and Armstrong.

Armstrong was more interested in hydraulic engineering than in the law – his family joked that he had water on the brain. His first serious attempt to better utilize the potential energy in a head of water was the design of a ‘rotatory’ engine in 1838 however, it failed to arouse any interest. He invented a hydraulic engine, following it up with other electrical and labour-saving devices, including the hydraulic crane. The first of these cranes was erected on the Newcastle Quayside and attracted wide attention. He also invented the hydraulic accumulator tower; a surviving example is some 300 feet high and dominates the docks at Grimsby.

By 1846 Armstrong gave up his career in law to concentrate on mechanical engineering, the following year he founded the W. G. Armstrong and Co at Elswick in Newcastle, to produce hydraulic machinery, cranes and bridges, soon to be followed by artillery. With the start of the Crimean War, Armstrong turned his ingenuity to the improvement of artillery, developing an impressively accurate field gun, the Armstrong breech-loader. In 1859 he was knighted and, in effect, made gun-maker in chief to the British Army. He gave his patents to the nation, refusing to make any money from producing guns for his country. By the time of his death his firm employed some 25,000 people, but he had long relinquished control.

Armstrong created Cragside in Northumberland, the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity and planted in its grounds seven million trees. At Cragside his guests included the Shah of Persia, the King of Siam, the Prime Minister of China and the future King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. From about 1875 he lived almost permanently at Cragside, introducing water-turbine-powered arc lamps for lighting the house in 1878 (the first house to be thus lit), converting to incandescent lamps in 1880 with the help of Joseph Swan of Newcastle, his friend and inventor of such lamps. He restored Bamburgh Castle on the Northumberland coast, often described as England’s finest castle. He died at Cragside on 27 December 1900, leaving almost £1.5 million, and was buried on 31 December alongside his wife in the extension of Rothbury churchyard overlooking the River Coquet.