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The World's First Swing Bridge

The World's First Swing Bridge

On 23 February 2015 / by Ali Baker
Right on Solarglide’s doorstep, on the famous River Tyne, lies the world’s first swing bridge; one of only a few surviving 19th century swing bridges in operation in England today. We take a brief look back at Sir William Armstrong’s fascinating life and how his experiments with the power of water, as a means to power machinery, lead to the construction of Newcastle’s famous Swing Bridge. Sir William Armstrong 

The Times wrote in Sir William Armstrong’s obituary when he died in 1900, aged 90, that “Newcastle had lost her greatest citizen”. One cannot therefore underestimate the impact that the visionary scientist, inventor and businessmen had on the city and most importantly on Newcastle’s pride and prize, the River Tyne. Aside from his work as a businessman, Armstrong (see image) had always been fascinated by the use of water as the motive power behind machinery.  Some of Armstrong’s experiments were carried out at his country house at Cragside (see image), where he would use the water from his lakes to drive his household machinery hydraulically- his house is certainly worth a visit for anyone in the area. The Hydraulic Crane Armstrong was aware of a very cumbersome task facing those working on the banks of the Tyne in the mid-19th century; coal that was brought to the waterside by railway had to be carried down barges and shovelled on board ships. The Newcastle engineer completely revolutionised the loading and unloading of ships by harnessing the power of water to develop the first hydraulic crane. He persuaded the city’s fathers to let him experiment with his crane, which worked by concentrating the water into a single column, enabling a large amount of water to pass through a pipe and the power of the water would give him the means to lift a very heavy weight. How Significant was Armstrong’s Invention? According to Henriette Heald (author of William Armstrong, Magicien of the North), Armstrong’s hydraulic crane was revolutionary not just in Britain, but all over the world. The list of processes that could be made more efficient by his invention was endless and his cranes were rapidly adopted by railways and ports across the world. In London, for example, the decks of London’s Tower Bridge were raised by a development of his technology. Why a Swing Bridge? Armstrong is undoubtedly most famous locally for the Swing Bridge (see image), which he invented and subsidised. Armstrong’s business, Elswick Works, employed over 25,000 people, making everything from hydraulic machinery to ammunition, field guns and warships. But, as a true businessman and entrepreneur, Armstrong wanted to explore other business opportunities, and his next idea was to open a shipyard in Elswick. The shipyard was based over 12 miles from the sea and the main obstacle between his shipyard at the upper reaches of the river and the mouth of sea was the low level 18th century stone arch bridge. Armstrong was able to persuade Newcastle to demolish the stone bridge and replace it with a swing bridge which would swing open to allow the passing of a ship either side (see image). The bridge worked through the generation and storage of water under pressure. This was used to power the hydraulic engines that turned the bridge. Work began on the bridge in 1873, and it opened 3 years later in 1876, costing £240,000 to build. According to twmuseaums, up to 1981, the bridge opened 286,000 times, enabling 450,000 vessels of over 220 million total net tonnes to pass through. The Swing Bridge Today  After the Second World War, the lack of modernisation and the competition from abroad gradually caused the local shipbuilding industry to decline.  Consequently, fewer ships passed either side of the Swing Bridge, and although the bridge is still in use nowadays, it only opens approximately 4 times per week. The bridge today (see image) is operated much in the same way as in William Armstrong’s time, all of the machinery is still original, including the: pipe works, engine and gears. The only difference is that the bridge, originally steam powered, is now electric powered, which of course is the more efficient option. Thanks for reading our blog. If you are interested in protecting the safety of your crew and vessel, then why not have a look at Solarglide’s range of BS, DNV and LRS approved navigational safety products? 


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