Irish inventor extraordinaire Louis Brennan: father of the torpedo and monorail
06 September 2016
Mayo man Louis Brennan invented the 'Brennan torpedo'
“Well, sir, there’s nothing on earth, Like a genuine, bona fide
Electrified, six-car monorail, What’d I say?
Monorail! What’s it called? Monorail! That’s right! Monorail!”
The mention of monorails today invokes the classic Simpsons’ song above and its associated imagery of expensive, useless, ‘white elephant’ infrastructure. However, the reality is that monorail systems are used extensively in the cities of some of the most technologically advanced societies in the world and have become the urban public-transport system of choice due to their ease of construction and utilisation of limited space.
The story behind the man who helped developed the monorail is the story of Ireland’s most prolific inventor, who also helped develop the helicopter and guided torpedo.
Hailing from Castlebar in Mayo, Louis Brennan was born in 1852, the tenth child to hardware merchants Thomas and Bridget Brennan. Brennan moved with his parents to Australia in 1861, joining the gold rush to Melbourne in the state of Victoria.
When he was of age, he was apprenticed to a watchmaker and this experience, combined with night classes at Collingwood Artisan’s School of Design, resulted in an exceptionally able young engineer. This raw talent for engineering was first revealed at the Juvenile Industries Exhibition held in Victoria in 1873. Here, Brennan exhibited inventions such as a window safety-latch, a mincing machine and a billiard marker and they would catch the eye of fellow engineer and industrialist Alexander Kennedy Smith, who hired the young Irishman and began mentoring him.
Developing the Brennan torpedo
When he was just 22, Brennan would conceive his first major invention. Inspired by the workings of a cotton reel, he developed a concept that would ultimately gain him fame and fortune. It was a method to send an object away at speed along a controlled path and return if necessary. Alexander Smith had encouraged Brennan to join the local Victoria Volunteer Artillery Regiment. An attached unit of this regiment was the torpedo corps and Brennan realised his concept could be used to develop the steerable torpedo, the world’s first practical guided missile.
The torpedo was propelled by counter-rotating screws and guided by two reeling wires, which were attached to a steam engine on shore or on a boat. This enabled the torpedo to be retrieved if it missed its target, ensuring minimum loss of the 100kg explosive ordinance. When it was fully developed, it could hit a target at 3km distance, travelling three metres beneath the water at a speed of 40kph.
A charming and persuasive man, Brennan would solicit a grant from the Victorian Government and others, such as civil engineer John Temperley, in order to create the Brennan Torpedo Company to further his research. In 1877, he would finally patent the ‘Brennan torpedo’. It was first tested in 1879 on Hobson Bay, Melbourne, to an audience of military and political top brass.
It was a resounding success, impressing everyone – especially Sir Andrew Clarke, the Irish-born Inspector General of Fortifications, who then invited Brennan to present his invention to the War Office in London.
The War Office soon realised its potential use for the defence of coastal areas such as harbours and ports and there then followed five years of top-secret testing and development with the Royal Engineers at Chatham. ‘Brennan’s torpedo forts’ were erected at various ports and harbours around the British Empire, with trials being conducted at Camden Fort, Crosshaven, Cork in 1884.
These were a great success and in 1887, the War Office bought the patent for the considerable sum of £110,000, (equivalent today of £11 million). Brennan was also appointed to the position of superintendent of the Brennan Torpedo Factory at Gillingham, Kent at a generously remunerated £1,500 per annum (€185,000 modern equivalent).
These extraordinary amounts sparked a controversy in parliament, but the War Office had recognised Brennan’s genius. In the words of British Conservative Party politician, Edward Stanhope: “It is not only your torpedo we want to buy; we want to buy your brains as well.” It was a job Brennan would hold for the next nine years. After this, he acted as a consulting engineer from 1896 to 1907, by which time the torpedo was being phased out and replaced with coastal defence guns.
Louis Brennan had now made his fortune and became famous also when he was made Companion of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath (CB) by Queen Victoria in 1892. A year previously, he also married his childhood sweetheart from Castlebar, Anna Quinn. They would have two children and the family settled into his mansion in Gillingham, England.
Anyone lucky enough to be invited into this home in the early 1900s would have discovered a house full of innovative inventions. They might have first noticed the chair lift on the stairs, which Brennan built for his beloved, but sickly, wife. They may have been delighted at the billiard table that lowered seamlessly into the floor, converting the area into a ballroom dancefloor.
The pièce de résistance, however, could be found in the garden. You would be forgiven in thinking it was at first an exceptionally designed children’s toy, but this was not the case: it was a fully working scale-model of one a gyroscopically balanced monorail system.
Brennan’s monorail system
Travelling on one tiny rail, the monorail train took corners at speed and sharp angles, climbed and descended steep mountains, successfully negotiated earthquake damaged sections of rail and traversed gorges sans viaduct – all in miniature, of course, but proving that a scale-up model would be equally effective.
Inspired by a wind-up toy he had bought for his son, the monorail train was kept steady by a couple of gyroscopic stabilisers called gyrostats. Brennan’s original concept was for its military uses, as the track could be laid down much quicker and travel at twice the speed than normal double track lines (as well as a smoother journey), but it was also obvious that it would have uses anywhere that double-track railways were impractical or costly to build.
Patented in 1903, the garden model was demonstrated to the Royal Society in 1907. A scaled-up system was successfully demonstrated to the press in 1909 and they loved it, nicknaming it the ‘Blondin railway’ after Charles Blondin, a tightrope walker who had traversed Niagara Falls.
One of the biggest supporters for the monorail project was Winston Churchill, who solicited practical and financial support from the War Office and from India, supplementing the considerable amount of Brennan’s own fortune that he had sunk into the project. Brennan again demonstrated the monorail at the Japan-British Exhibition in London in 1910 and, with British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith volunteering to take a ride, it won the Grand Prize.
Despite this accolade, the press and senior government support, there were still concerns about its safety: that if the gyrostats failed, the train would topple. Brennan assured people that these fears were unfounded, but this fear and pressure from the double-track railway industry meant that all his backers gradually withdrew from the project.
Brennan was now financially ruined, forced to sell his house, return to work and the monorail project abandoned. Over the years, several monorail systems were developed but they would not be seriously considered again until the 1980s, when its practical application in densely populated urban areas was implemented in places like Hong Kong, Germany, China and Japan.
Luckily, the engineer was able to find employment, if not as well paid as his previous role. For the duration of World War 1 in 1916, Brennan worked for the Ministry of Munitions inventing refining top-secret munitions. After this, with the help of his erstwhile supporter Winston Churchill, he persuaded the air ministry to support him in the invention of a practical helicopter.
Based at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough, the now nearly seventy-year-old Brennan threw himself into this ambitious project. In 1922, with typical Brennan pomp and ceremony, this ground-breaking helicopter was unveiled to the public and it rose successfully into the air for a short period of time, prompting The New York Times to describe it as “one of the most important and far-reaching steps yet made in the history or aeronautics”.
The success proved to be short lived, however, and three years later it still was in development. Finally, after the prototype experienced a serious crash in 1925, the air ministry closed down the project but the research conducted here would inspire others to develop the helicopter years in the future. During this period also, in 1922, Brennan would help found the National Academy of Ireland, the principal learned society of Ireland.
He would attempt to resurrect his helicopter and monorail projects in the following years, investing all his own money in them. He was unfortunately just too far ahead of his time and it would bankrupt him.
Louis Brennan would die in September 1932 from injuries sustained in a car accident in Switzerland the previous January. He was buried in an unmarked grave in London and lay in this anonymous resting-place for over eighty years, an ill-fitting place for a man who made such a mark on the world.
Thankfully, in 2014, this wrong was righted when fellow Castlebar native, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, unveiled a new gravestone on the site and a plaque was erected in his home town. This memorial finally honoured one of Ireland’s greatest engineers and, with over forty unique inventions, its most prolific inventor.
Gray, Edwyn, 19th Century Torpedoes and Their Inventors (Naval Institute Press, 2004.
Hamer, Mick, Histories: The spinning-top railway, New Scientist (18 November 2006).
O’Hara, Bernard, Mayo – Aspects of its Heritage