RIVALRY AND INJUSTICE BETWEEN VICTORIAN INVENTORS
Captain Alexander Theophilus Blakely RA, bom in 1827, was an Irish soldier who devised a form of built-up construction for guns. This idea, patented in 1855, promised to be a vast improvement on the old cast-iron and bronze techniques. However, Blakely did not receive any recognition for his invention, which was rejected by the War Office, while William (later Sir and finally Lord) Armstrong became rich and famous by developing a gun which appeared to incorporate Blakely’s system of barrel construction. Despite pathetic pleas from Blakely’s widow – he died insolvent in Peru in 1868 – the Armstrong firm and Lord Armstrong’s family continued to deny any pirating of Blakely’s patent.
Although Blakely’s guns were made commercially both in this country, some at his works in Greenwich, and abroad, and were used during the American Civil War, for example in the repulse of the Federal attack on Charlestown and in the form of a 7-inch gun aboard the infamous ‘Alabama’ built on the Mersey and sunk off Cherbourg in 1864, they never received proper trial by the British War Office: Blakely’s name is now hardly known and very few of his guns survive in this country
‘The Ordnance Committee in 1861 reported to Lord Herbert, the Secretary of State for War, that Captain Blakely’s method, and no other, is the principle employed in the manufacture of Armstrong guns, and it appears to them that whatever dispute there may be as to originality or priority of invention, and the use of terms between Captain Blakely and Sir William Armstrong, there is little or none in the matter of fact. “Both make, or propose to make, strong guns in the same way, nor is the principle in any way new.”‘ (Tennent).
Victorian technological advances brought dramatic changes for example in
transport, the railway boom and iron ships with steam engines. An unrivalled
industrial capacity was created.
This revolution was apparently ignored by the artillery establishment. In Great Britain both naval and land service artillery procurement was the responsibility of a , conservative joint committee which regularly turned down any innovative proposals. To be fair, the Committee was anxious not to waste public money on fanciful inventions which promised to transform the art of war; whether or not the invention might work hardly mattered. If it did, highly inconvenient changes would ensue; if not, then the Committee would not only look foolish, but public money would have been wasted.
External pressure eventually obliged the British artillery establishment to attempt some urgent catching-up. The Crimean War showed how powerful the new rifled muskets could be, and the limited abilities of heavy artillery. Indeed, to improve on the latter, the Irish engineer Robert Mallet designed a monster mortar of 36-inch calibre intended to defeat the fortifications of Sebastopol. Only two were built; due to manufacturing difficulties they were not finished before the war ended. One of these is on show at Fort Nelson. As so often in the history of this country, it was foreign developments that provoked action. The French campaign in Italy in 1856 showed that Colonel Treuille de Beaulieu’s rifled bronze guns could gain enormous advantage for artillery in the field.
In Great Britain, several leading civilian engineers saw it as a patriotic duty, despite their usual occupations, to apply their industrial skills to making more powerful engines of destruction. William Armstrong was primarily concerned with hydraulics and was immensely important in this field. Joseph Whitworth was the famous precision engineer, giving us the first standardised screw threads, some of which are still in use and bear his name. Fierce rivals in the Ordnance Trials, neither chose to study gunnery until it was almost forced on them. Even the great Isambard Kingdom Brunel sketched and calculated the fabrication of great guns. So much development time had been lost that when William Armstrong (eventually to become Lord Armstrong and head of the country’s greatest armaments firm) appeared to have come up with a world-beater, he and his design were
enthusiastically adopted in 1859 by a grateful country. Armstrong generously
presented his gun patents to the Crown and received his knighthood, forming the Elswick Ordnance Company at the same time.
That he was also appointed Engineer to the War Department and later, Superintendent of the Royal Gun Factory, might have seemed acceptable, even though five years previously he had not yet started to build his first experimental gun. However, the fact that Armstrong was running government production at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich whilst producing similar weapons for sale to the Government at his own works near Newcastle did raise questions. These became more searching when the Elswick products seemed to cost far more than those made at Woolwich. The cost of a 110 pounder gun at Elswick was nearly twice the price of the Woolwich product).
What really offended contemporaries was Armstrong’s additional power of controlling the trials for all new artillery projects. Blakely claimed that in 1860 he applied to have a rifled gun tried in competition with an Armstrong and a Whitworth as laid down by the War Office and at his own expense but, ‘it has always been refused’.
Unfortunately for Armstrong, though his gun was in effect the prototype of the modem gun, rifled, built up in layers, breech-loading and firing a pointed cylindrical projectile, it suffered from detailed defects. Any infelicities in its engineering were unlikely to go unnoticed by the great engineering minds of the epoch. Its actual performance was not as good as hoped and Whitworth annoyingly kept achieving amazing results in his own experiments with range and in penetration of armour. It was not surprising that the House of Commons Select Committee of 1863 recommended that a new method be adopted so that, ‘without prejudice or partiality, the different systems, not of Sir W. Armstrong and Mr Whitworth only, but of Mr Bashley Britten, Captain Blakely, Mr W Richards and other able men whose minds are now engaged on ordnance questions, may be fairly experimented upon.’
The unfortunate result of the problems with Armstrong’s guns was that the whole principle of breech-loading fell from favour. Instead of being developed further, his design was replaced by a muzzle-loading version developed in-house using similar manufacturing techniques. In other words, the new rifled muzzle loading guns were still ‘built-up’ guns and thus apparently based on Blakely’s patent. The field had never been properly thrown open to other inventors.
Blakely produced his first gun early in 1855 which withstood firing 3,389 rounds in a competitive trial with one cast-iron and one bronze gun which burst after 351 and 479 rounds respectively. Two guns were ordered by the War Office for experiment. These were cast-iron with wrought-iron hoops. The Ordnance Select Committee eventually reported in 1859 that ‘guns so constructed could never be considered safe…’ However, Blakely claimed in 1864 that upwards of 400 guns of his design had been made in England and thousands abroad. Blakely guns were used in repelling the Federal attack on Charlestown in 1863. A 7-inch Blakely equipped the Confederate ‘Alabama’.
However, Blakely’s name has always been overshadowed by those of Armstrong
and to a lesser extent, of the other pioneers such as Whitworth and Mallet. His guns are exceptionally rare in this country; only two are known. The Royal Armouries example [serial no. 69] was acquired from Coalhouse Fort in Essex. Although Blakely had set up his own works on Greenwich Marsh by 1866, near the present entrances to the Blackwall Tunnel, his guns were often made at other works. The Royal Armouries’ example was built by the Liverpool firm ofFawcett, Preston & Co in 1862 and weighs about two tons.
Diana Blakely, great grand-daughter of Alexander, happens to live in Hampshire and has generously donated papers relating to Blakely’s treatment by officialdom to the Museum.
Blakely was bom in Sligo on 7 January 1827; commissioned in the Royal Artillery,1844, retired on half-pay 1852. Died insolvent in Peru in 1868. His widow, Harriette, pursued his claim for recognition and hers for a small pension as the papers now at Fort Nelson show.
This gun with the papers and in the context of the important pieces already in the collection by the great Victorian rivals – Whitworth, Armstrong and Mallet – is an exceptional acquisition for the Royal Armouries and is a forceful reminder of the ruthless character of the Victorian arms trade.
Further research is needed on Blakely’s links with Bessemer and Vavasseur, the great designer of gun-mountings. It is intriguing that Blakely’s patent of 1855 contains a remarkably early suggestion for the use of a hydraulic recoil control system contained within the gun carriage. This was not adopted successfully in field calibre weapons until the closing years of the 19th century.
British Patent 431 ofFeb.27 1855, Blakely, A T. This covers various means of
constructing barrels in layers, including the use of hoops or coils shrunk onto a cast- iron tube. He also describes the use of’wire or rod’ wound upon the barrel tube, but Longridge was able to cover apparently the same idea shortly afterwards [1167 ofMay 24 1855]. Also covered in Blakely’s patent was the remarkably advanced idea for hydraulic control of recoil on the carriage.
British Patent 505 ofFeb.21 1857, Blakely, A T. This brief specification deals with a method ofpre-stressing the outer component of the barrel by forcing a tube into an oversize chamber.
Act of Parliament 22 Vict, c. 13. This made Armstrong’s patent secret.
Baker, H A 1973/1974 What went wrong with the Armstrong? Two parts in Journal of the Arms & Armour Society, Vols VII and VIII
Blakely, Harriette. Correspondence and other papers. In archives of Royal
Armouries, Fort Nelson.
Caruana, Adrian. 1992 Alexander Theophilus Blakely. Journal of the Ordnance
Society, Vol. 4
Holley, A L 1864 Ordnance and Armor.An American overview.
Tennent, Sir James E 1864 The story of the Guns London. Deals with the rival gun designs and inventors, and the government trials.
*To be added; refs to Bartlett, W V and Ludlow, Barbara J
NICHOLAS HALL KEEPER, FORT NELSON – notes for a talk at the Maritime Museum 2001
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