Many of the buildings I write about in this little series are new buildings, developments that are doing something innovative and experimental. This one’s an old one – a large and rambling country mansion on a hilltop in Northumberland. Cragside was built in the 1860s and was home to Lord Armstrong, arms manufacturer, engineering magnate and electricity enthusiast. The house has a number of experimental features – it has a unique ventilation and central heating system, an early washing machine, and an eccentrically elaborate hydraulic roasting spit. But the most notable feature of the house is that it was a pioneer of renewable energy.
In 1878, the world’s first hydro-electric power station was built on the site, using a vortex turbine to run a single arc light. It wasn’t a great success, but two years later Joseph Swan perfected his incandescent bulb in nearby Newcastle, and the new bulbs were installed in the library. A series of increasingly sophisticated hydropower techniques were tested, until enough electricity was generated to illuminate the whole house. It a was big novelty at the time, and Cragside was considered one of the wonders of the industrial age. Local papers described it as a ‘magician’s palace’.
Armstrong recognised the importance of this renewable source of energy. “The case has novelty,” he wrote of his own electric light, “not only in the application of this mode of lighting to domestic use, but also in the derivation of the producing power from a natural source – a neighbouring brook being turned to account for that purpose. The brook, in fact, lights the house, and there is no consumption of any material in the process.”
Armstrong believed that this use of natural forces was the future. He declared that coal was wasteful and that Britain would eventually abandon it in favour of renewable energy. “We have firstly the direct heating power of the sun’s rays, which we have not yet succeeded in applying to motive purposes” he said in a lecture in 1881. “Secondly we have water power, wind power and tidal power, all depending on influences lying outside of our planet. And, thirdly, we have chemical attraction or affinity.”
Unfortunately, Lord Armstrong’s biggest contributions to engineering were in weaponry, which is where he made his fortune. The Armstrong gun was used in the Second Opium War, and he sold guns to both sides in the American civil war. But we can still recognise a man who was 150 years ahead of his time when it came to energy.
I mention Cragside this week because it is now operated by the National Trust, and this week they opened a new hydropower plant. A 17m Archimedes screw will provide enough power to keep the lights on at the property, which have all been switched for LEDs. It’s a nice way of building on Armstrong’s legacy not just by preserving his own inventions, but by continuing to innovate.