Historical Hackers: The Cragside Hacker, circa 1870


Imagine visiting a house that was off the grid, using hydroelectric power to run lights, a dishwasher, a vacuum cleaner, and a washing machine. There is a plant watering system and an intercom between the bedrooms. Not really a big deal, right? It’s the twenty-first century, after all.

Image of Armstrong and his 7 inch cannon from an 1887 edition of Illustrated London News

But then imagine you stepped out of your time machine to find this house not nowadays, but in the year 1870. Suddenly things get a little more impressive, and all thanks to a British electric hacker. appointed William Armstrong who built a house known as the Cragside. Even if you’ve never been to Northumberland, Cragside may sound familiar. He has appeared in several TV shows, but – perhaps most notably – played the role of Lockwood Manor in the film. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.

Armstrong was a lawyer by training, but became interested in science, particularly hydraulics and electricity, a hot topic in the early 1800s. He eventually left his law firm to form WG Armstrong and Company, known to produce Armstrong guns, which were breech-loading artillery pieces ranging from 2.5 inches to 7 inches. In 1859, he was knighted and became the main supplier of armaments to the army and the navy.

A vacation destination

In 1862 Armstrong was in dire need of a vacation. He had spent time in Northumberland as a child, particularly in the town of Rothbury, so he returned there to relax.

The house started out as a simple hunting lodge. Source: National Trust

He enjoyed it so much that he decided to buy some land and build a modest house in the area. The original house was actually just a hunting lodge and didn’t offer much in terms of luxury, but Armstrong outfitted it with furnishings to suit a much more refined home. Falling in love with the area even more over time, Armstrong decided to expand the house in 1869. An architect named Shaw quickly drew up the plans, but the execution took over 20 years.

Apparently Armstrong was a difficult client for an architect. He was inclined to change his plans on the fly, and because of that, the end result is a house that could perhaps best be described as rambling.


Hydroelectric power station at Cragside
Part of the Cragside hydroelectric system uses an Archimedean screw (source: National Trust)

Armstrong built a laboratory where he would experiment with electric current. The room is now a billiard room and has been since 1895. Before that, however, the lab must have been a busy place, indeed. Armstrong built dams to create five separate lakes on the property. In 1868 a water mill provided mechanical power, and in 1870 a Siemens generator transformed the site into what is believed to be the world’s first hydroelectric power station.

Armstrong was an avid art collector, which is why in 1878 he illuminated his collection with the help of arc lamps. Arc lamps weren’t optimal for almost everything, however, let alone for viewing artwork. Arc lamps generally produced a harsh light and tended to flicker and hiss. While the lamps weren’t too bad for street lighting, they certainly weren’t ideal for general use. But at the time, Edison’s incandescent bulb was a year away from his invention and even further from being both practical and available.

Let there be light

While Edison gets all the fame for inventing the incandescent bulb, a lot of people were working on parallel research, and at least one of them independently found a workable design. While Edison found charred cotton and bamboo as suitable filaments around 1880, inventor Joseph Swan was working with charred paper as early as 1850 and had a working but impractical model by 1860. Problems included the lack of a source. reliable electricity and the difficulties in making a good vacuum. Swan invented a mercury pump to solve the latter problem, an approach also used by Hermann Sprengel.

It seems that Swan found cotton as a suitable filament around the same time as Edison. His own house was the first to be lit with bulbs from the Swan Electric Light Company, of course. It also supplied 1,200 bulbs for the Savoy Theater in Westminster, which until then had been lit by gas. While the theater was having its lights installed, the home of Swan’s friend William Armstrong became the second home to be lit by Swan’s bulbs. After all, in December 1880 the house already had electricity. While the lights are far from perfect, they match the modern conveniences Armstrong loved very much.

The bulbs had low resistance and required thick copper wires. They also burned very quickly. But it has given Cragside the distinction of being one of the first homes in the world with electric lighting, and arguably the first to be lighted by hydroelectric power.

Ahead of the curve

Armstrong It might not be a household name, but it did a lot of important things. He built the mechanism that operates Tower Bridge in London. He also developed a method for storing hydraulic energy called the hydraulic accumulator. He was a correspondent for Michael Faraday, who is often remembered. He also used hydraulics and friction to generate static electricity in a device similar to a Van de Graf machine which was seen during a performance at the Polytechnic in London. No wonder he was called “the magician of the north”.

It seems Armstrong was ahead of his time in many ways. In addition to the modern appliances in his home, he was a strong supporter of renewable energy. He recognized the power of water, of course, but also of the sun. He also believed coal was a waste and predicted Britain would cease coal production within 200 years.

The house still gets some of its electricity from a hydroelectric power station rebuilt on the site. There is a video you can watch about the project and see a preview of Armstrong’s remarkable “hunting lodge” below.


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