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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Louis Brennan, Irish Australian Inventor

louis-brennanLouis Brennan, Irish Australian mechanical engineer and inventor, is born in Castlebar, County Mayo on January 28, 1852.

Brennan moves to Melbourne, Australia in 1861 with his parents. He starts his career as a watchmaker and a few years later is articled to Alexander Kennedy Smith, a renowned civil and mechanical engineer of the period. He serves as a sergeant in the Victorian Engineers under the command of Captain John James Clark. He invents the idea of a steerable torpedo in 1874, from observing that if a thread is pulled on a reel at an angle with suitable leverage, the reel will move away from the thread side. He spends some years working out his invention, and receives a grant of £700 from the Victorian government towards his expenses. He patents the Brennan torpedo in 1877. The idea is trialed at Camden Fort near Crosshaven, County Cork.

Brennan goes to England in 1880 and brings his invention before the War Office. Sir Andrew Clarke alerts the authorities to the possibilities of the torpedo if used in the defence of harbours and channels, and the patent is eventually bought for a sum believed to be more than £100,000 (£ 9,331,100 in 2019). In 1887 he is appointed superintendent of the Brennan torpedo factory, and is consulting engineer from 1896 to 1907.

Brennan does much work on a gyro monorail locomotive which is kept upright by a gyrostat. In 1903 he patents a gyroscopically-balanced monorail system that he designs for military use. He successfully demonstrates the system on November 10, 1909, at Gillingham, England, but fears that the gyroscopes might fail prevents adoption of the system for widespread use.

From 1916 to 1919 Brennan serves in the munitions inventions department. From 1919 to 1926 he is engaged by the air ministry in aircraft research work at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, and gives much time to the invention of a helicopter. The government spends a large sum of money on it, but in 1926 the air ministry gives up working on it, much to Brennan’s disappointment.

Brennan marries Anna Quinn on 10 September 10, 1892. The marriage results in a son and a daughter. He is created a Companion of the Order of the Bath in 1892, and is foundation member of the National Academy of Ireland in 1922.

In January 1932 Brennan is knocked down by a car at Montreux, Switzerland, and dies on January 17, 1932. He is buried at St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, Kensal Green, London, in an unmarked plot numbered 2454 that is opposite the Chapel record office. On March 11, 2014, Taoiseach Enda Kenny unveils a new gravestone for Brennan at St. Mary’s in a ceremony honouring the inventor’s life and career.

Gillingham Library retains the archive of his papers.


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Death of Inventor Alexander Mitchell

alexander-mitchellAlexander Mitchell, Irish engineer who from 1802 is blind, dies on June 25, 1868. He is known as the inventor of the screw-pile lighthouse.

Mitchell is born in Dublin on April 13, 1780. His family moves to Belfast while he is a child. He receives his formal education at Belfast Academy where he excels in mathematics. He begins to notice that his eyesight is failing. By the age of 16 he can no longer read and by the age of 22 he is completely blind.

Undeterred, Mitchell borrows £100 and starts up a successful business making bricks in the Ballymacarrett area of Belfast. This enables him to start building his own houses and he completes approximately twenty in the city. It is during this period that his talent for inventing comes to the fore and he fabricates several machines for use in brick-making and the building trade.

Mitchell patents the screw-pile in 1833, for which he later gains some fame. The screw-pile is used for the erection of lighthouses and other structures on mudbanks and shifting sands, including bridges and piers. His designs and methods are employed all over the world from the Portland, Maine breakwater to bridges in Bombay. Initially it is used for the construction of lighthouses on Maplin Sands in the Thames Estuary in 1838, at Fleetwood Lancashire (UK) Morecambe Bay in 1839 and at Belfast Lough where his lighthouse is finished in July 1844.

In 1848 Mitchell is elected member of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) and receives the Telford Medal the following year for a paper on his invention.

In May 1851 Mitchell moves to Cobh to lay the foundation for the Spit Bank Lighthouse. The success of these undertakings leads to the use of his invention on the breakwater at Portland, the viaduct and bridges on the Bombay, Baroda and Central India Railway and a broad system of Indian telegraphs.

Mitchell becomes friendly with astronomer John Thomas Romney Robinson and mathematician George Boole.

Alexander Mitchell dies at Glen Devis near Belfast on June 25, 1868 and is buried in the old Clifton graveyard in Belfast. His wife and daughter predecease him.


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Birth of John Robert Gregg, Inventor of Gregg Shorthand

john-robert-greggJohn Robert Gregg, educator, publisher, humanitarian, and the inventor of the eponymous shorthand system Gregg shorthand, is born in Shantonagh, County Monaghan on June 17, 1867.

Gregg is the youngest child of Robert and Margaret Gregg. They move to Rockcorry in 1872. Robert Gregg, who is of Scottish ancestry, is station-master at the Bushford railway station in Rockcorry. He and his wife raise their children as strict Presbyterians, and send their children to the village school in Rockcorry. On Gregg’s second day of class, he is caught whispering to a schoolmate, which prompts the schoolmaster to hit the two children’s heads together. This incident profoundly damages Gregg’s hearing for the rest of his life, rendering him unable to participate fully in school, unable to understand his teacher. This ultimately leads to him unnecessarily being perceived as dull or mentally challenged by his peers, teachers, and family.

In 1877, one of Robert Gregg’s friends, a journalist named Annesley, visits the village for a weekend. He is versed in Pitman Shorthand and takes verbatim notes of the sermon at the village church. This causes the preacher to sweat and stutter out of fear that his sermon, which he has plagiarized from a famous preacher, would be made public through Annesley’s notes. That day, Robert Gregg sees the shorthand skill as a powerful asset, so he makes it mandatory for his children to learn Pitman shorthand, with the exception of John, who is considered by his family too “simple” to learn it. None of the children succeed in fully learning the system. On his own, John Robert learns a different shorthand system, that of Samuel Taylor, published in a small book by Odell. He teaches himself the system fully since he does not require the ability to hear in order to learn from the book.

Due to hardships on the family, Gregg has to leave school before the age of 13 in order to support his family’s income. He works in a law office, earning five shillings a week.

Gregg professes he initially set out to improve the English adaptation by John Matthew Sloan of the French Prévost Duployan shorthand, while working with one of Sloan’s sales agents, Thomas Malone. Malone publishes a system called Script Phonography, of which Gregg asserts a share in authorship is owed to him. Angered by Malone, Gregg resigns from working with him and, encouraged by his older brother Samuel, publishes and copyrights his own system of shorthand in 1888. It is put forth in a brochure entitled Light-Line Phonography: The Phonetic Handwriting which he publishes in Liverpool, England.

In 1893, he emigrates to the United States, where he publishes in the same year Gregg Shorthand. The method meets with great success in the new country, and Gregg settles in Chicago where he authors numerous books for the Gregg Publishing Company on the subjects of shorthand and contemporary business practices.

John Robert Gregg dies in New York City, at the age of 80, on February 23, 1948.