Great leaps of our imagination
From the slide rule to the ejector seat, NI engineers have been responsible for some of the world’s finest inventions, says author John Moore
While Northern Ireland's shipbuilding and linen manufacturing heritage is well known, the province has a much greater engineering past than is generally appreciated.
Belfast in the 19th century and for much of the 20th century was a major contributor to manufacturing and innovation in the UK. Many great engineers, some of them of local birth and others who settled here and made their reputation through their subsequent work made significant impact throughout the world.
It is generally accepted, in an ongoing debate, that among the inventions of the 20th century the aeroplane had the greatest impact on mankind. The two contenders for second place were both products of Ulster-born engineers. Enough people know of the benefits of the Ferguson hydraulic ploughing system to realise just how important it is but how many have heard of the cavity magnetron?
This essential device creates microwaves to power mobile phones and microwave ovens.
The original was developed by Eric Megaw for use in aircraft radar sets during the Second World War. The high level of innovation and dynamism in the province attracted engineers from outside these islands. Some of the names have survived, in famous engineering firms such as Harland & Wolff, Davidson & Co, H&J Martin, McLaughlin and Harvey, or Mackies.
Many people will have heard of educator, Lord Kelvin, Harry Ferguson or Sir James Martin, inventor of the ejector seat, and even used their inventions, but others who made significant contributions in their own times are now largely forgotten.
Even the story of the Harland & Wolff shipyard reveals little known facts. Sir Edward Harland was born in Scarborough in 1831 and gained considerable experience of shipbuilding before coming to Belfast in 1853 to take over the ailing shipyard of Edward Hickson. After a few years, during which he improved the productivity of the yard and the quality of the ships, he decided to start up his own shipyard and bought the concern from Hickson.
When he needed to take on an assistant he chose Gustav Wolff who, after serving as chief draughtsman, was taken into a partnership in 1861.
They also had close connections with the White Star Line. This resulted in every ship for the line being built by Harland and Wolff. The first, Oceanic of 1870, was renowned as the vessel which set the standard of luxury for transatlantic passengers and led eventually to the ill-fated RMS Titanic.
They trained up local talent as required, for example James Pirrie and Walter Wilson who became partners in 1874. Pirrie was responsible for selling the vessels which Wilson made until his death in 1904 when Pirrie took sole control. Others who followed in their footsteps, such as Sir Frederick Rebbeck, CC Pounder and Rupert Cameron all made notable contributions to Northern Ireland's shipbuilding heritage.
We should not forget Frank Workman of the “Wee Yard” who introduced such innovations as the first refrigerated cargo vessels and the first transatlantic turbine powered passenger ships.
There has been much talk recently about Harry Ferguson, the first person in these islands to build and fly his own design of monoplane, making his first flight 100 years ago.
And in September 1910, Lilian Bland of Carnmoney became the first woman in the world to build and fly her own aircraft.
Other Ulstermen have had a significant impact on world aviation with Sir James Martin, who invented the ejector seat, being best known outside the industry.
Edward Calvert was the man who first rigged up the lights for the “Dam Busters” — the RAF bomber squadron — to keep their constant height when raiding the German dams.
After the war, he led the development of the lighting arrays which are to be found at every airport in the world to give pilots a safe approach in all conditions.
Rex McCandless, who is better known for the design of the “Featherbed” motorcycle frame, spent many years understanding the reasons why autogiros crashed and established a safe operating envelope for them. He then had to spend years fighting the establishment which did not believe him because he did not have an orthodox education and suitable qualifications.
The first person in Ireland to build a steam coach was John Rowan, a millwright from Doagh, and he successfully demonstrated it in Belfast in 1836. It seems to have been a practical device but failed to leave its mark because local investors were only prepared to put their money into railways. The next foray into road vehicles was by the Chambers Brothers in 1904.
Robert and Charlie Chambers, who had served apprenticeships in the shipyards, were general engineers making a machine to wire the corks into aerated water bottles. Their brother Jack, having worked for Sirocco in India, was manager of the Vauxhall Iron Works in London and had designed the first Vauxhall car.
He sent an example for his brothers to try out but it broke down on the way to their family farm outside Downpatrick.
They decided they could do better and proceeded to make a successful car. It says much about the progress we have made in a century that they felt obliged to send a telegram back to the works to announce the safe arrival of the prototype in Bangor on its first outing.
JB Ferguson, Harry’s brother, made the Fergus car in 1916 but the wartime conditions made it impossible to sell.
JA McKee took over the design and built the OD car in 1920 but it, too, failed to sell and he went on to develop the electric hare for greyhound racing.
In the motorcycling industry Joe Craig became the chief engineer of the Norton motorcycle company and Rex McCandless designed the “Featherbed” frame which gave Nortons world domination in the mid fifties.
Ulster engineers have made their mark in education as well; William Thompson (Lord Kelvin) became a Professor in the University of Glasgow at 22 and held the post for more than 60 years.
FC Forth was the driving force behind the establishment of the Belfast Technical College and, as its first principal, set the high standards which produced generations of highly trained engineers for local industry. John Perry is credited with the establishment of the first physics laboratory and second mechanics workshop in an English school. As Professor in the Imperial College of Engineering in Tokyo, he set the pattern for the education of engineers in Japan. His system of laboratory based training was later widely used in the rest of the world.
Among his many inventions were an electric tricycle, the clock based watt meter which records household electricity usage and a slide rule.
Other smaller inventions prove fascinating too. John Stephenson who ran a printing firm developed the fish-based glue, Secotine, and then devised the tube with a replaceable pin to seal the nozzle. Jack Brown, of the eponymous linen firm, invented a spring wheel as an alternative to the pneumatic tyre developed by JB Dunlop. Alexander Pringle designed and made a superior artificial hand for survivors of the First World War.
The Lives of the Great Engineers of Ulster by Sir Bernard Crossland and John Moore in three volumes £15 each, from The Bookshop at Queens, some branches of Easons or NE Consultancy, 7 Ballymenoch Road, Holywood, BT18 0HH