Sir William George Armstrong (1810 – 1900)

William Armstrong was the principal innovator in the use of hydraulic power, which in his lifetime came to be the means of operating cranes, lock gates in harbours, elevators, hoists, traversers and capstans in railway depots and lifting bridges. Hydraulic power systems were established as public utilities in such cities as Manchester, Antwerp and Hamburg, and in the 21st century many sophisticated mechanical engineering systems are hydraulically operated.

Armstrong was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the son of a corn merchant. He showed an early interest in machines but trained as a lawyer. After his interest was aroused by the operation of a waterwheel while on holiday in Yorkshire in 1835 he began experiments, and in 1845 demonstrated a hydraulic crane that he patented the following year. He formed a partnership, W G Armstrong & Co, which began production of hydraulic machines in a works at Elswick on the western side of Newcastle in 1847.Early products included hoists for the docks at Liverpool, underground engines for coal mines, and machinery for lead mines and dressing plants in Co Durham.

He invented the hydraulic accumulator in 1850-1. During the Crimean War he became involved with the manufacture of armaments, mines for the Royal Navy, and field guns for the army, and established a munitions plant alongside the hydraulic works at Elswick. In 1868 he began co-operation with a shipbuilder, Charles Mitchell of Walker-on-Tyne, which stimulated his involvement in the project for a new, hydraulically-operated swing bridge over the River Tyne, opened in 1876, replacing the ancient Tyne Bridge that had been an obstacle to shipping. His company merged with Mitchell`s in 1882 and established a warship construction yard at Elswick. He took a combative attitude when his workers went on strike in 1871, and subsequently relinquished most of the day-to-day administration of the company to managers, making his last appearance at Elswick during a visit by the King of Siam in 1892. His armaments company amalgamated with that of Sir Joseph Whitworth (1803-87) in 1897.

Armstrong was, in a private capacity, a pioneer in the application of electric power. In 1863 he began to develop an estate at Cragside in rural Northumberland, where between 1869 and 1885 the architect Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912) built an imposing mansion. It was lit by electricity from 1878. Some of the generating plant remains, as do the fittings in the house made by Francis Lea (1866-1940) of Shrewsbury. Armstrong`s first experimental hydraulic machine is displayed in the Museum of Science and Industry at Newcastle.