Louis Brennan innovators


LEGENDS:THE VOLUME of young people moving to the UK and Australia is the most telling reflection of the mess we’re in at the moment, and in many ways a sad return to a pattern of emigration we had all hoped had ended in the 1980s. And it’s important to remember we’re not merely losing a generation of young people, but their children too.

As in previous generations, those people and their children will be able to take advantage of opportunities that might not have become available to them here – the legacy of our loss will be their adventures, discoveries and inventions.

A salutory example is the story of Louis Brennan, one of the most accomplished engineers and inventors Ireland has ever produced. He was born in Castlebar, Co Mayo in 1852 to a hardware merchant, Thomas Brennan, and his wife. Within a decade, they moved to Australia, following the path of one of their older sons, Patrick. (Another son, Michael, was an accomplished artist – two of his paintings are in the collection of the National Gallery.)

Young Louis displayed an aptitude for mechanics and engineering, developing ingenious devices such as a window-safety latch and a mincing machine. He began his career as a watchmaker, before taking a position with a prestigious civil engineering firm run by a wealthy Scot called Alexander Kennedy Smith. It was in this period that he designed the invention that would change his life – a steerable, or dirigible, torpedo.

In the era of nuclear submarines, the notion of a dirigible torpedo might seem like a rather tepid sort of weapon, but in the late 19th century it represented a major evolution in weaponry – it was the first effective guided missile.

Famously, the fundamental design came to him while he was toying with a cotton reel, which moved forward when the thread was pulled from underneath the cylinder. Apparently, the notion of using this observation for steering a torpedo only came to him when he realised they didn’t need to make a return journey.

The final design relied on two propellors controlled by wires connected to a watch station on land – the controller would wind the wires at different speeds, steering the torpedo with great accuracy, even at its top speed of up to 31 mph.

Research on the weapon was carried out in Victoria in the mid-1870s, and in 1878 Brennan received a patent for the Brennan Torpedo, the first of 38 patents he was to receive in his long career.

It wasn’t long before the British government became interested in his design as a defensive weapon for protecting ports and harbours, and after a few years working on prototypes, they offered Brennan and his chief engineer, John Ridley Temperley, the then astronomical fee of £110,000 for the “exclusive rights” to the design in 1884.

A proviso of the deal, however, was that he would oversee production of the torpedo, so more than 20 years after leaving Mayo, Brennan changed hemispheres once again and began work at an experimental manufacturing plant at Gillingham, Kent. He remained there until 1896, before becoming a consultant to the torpedo plant to allow him to work on other innovative weapons technologies.

The Brennan Torpedo was the centrepiece of British coastal defence for nearly 20 years, and one of the remaining stations is at Fort Camden near Crosshaven in Co Cork.

Similar to so many emigrants before and since, Brennan didn’t look too far from his original home when searching for love – in 1892 he married Anna Mary Quinn from, of all places, Castlebar, Co Mayo. They set up home in a large house called Woodlands near the Gillingham plant.

While continuing his involvement with the torpedo plant, Brennan developed a highly innovative monorail – which balanced magically with the use of highly-sophisticated gyroscopes. He unveiled it in his gardens in 1907, and attracted a lot of attention, including from a young politician by the name of Winston Churchill.

After a few years of development, and a high-profile demonstration that attracted the then prime minister Herbert Asquith and chancellor David Lloyd George, the monorail was ultimately deemed unsuitable for commercial development. Brennan, then in his late 50s, was left bitterly disappointed and broke.

Brennan worked on a number of other inventions, but by the time of the first World War, the failure of the monorail forced Brennan to return to work, and he took up a position at the British ministry of munitions. From 1919 at the Royal Aircraft factory, he focused on aircraft research. He spent a lot of time, and the ministry invested a lot of money, on a helicopter design, but it was eventually scrapped in 1926. Brennan’s hopes of a final great invention to add to his legacy were dashed.

Just a month before his 80th birthday, and not long after his wife passed away, Brennan was knocked down while on holiday in Switzerland, and died of his injuries a few weeks later. An emigrant to the end, he is buried in Kensal Green, London.

The Castlebar native designed the invention that would change his life – a steerable, or dirigible, torpedo. Photograph: Getty Images/Hulton Archive