Louis Brennan was an Irish-Australian mechanical engineer and the inventor of Brennan’s torpedo, the world’s first practical guided missile, and the gyroscopic monorail. A plaque will be unveiled at his birthplace in Castlebar on April 15th, by Commodore Mark Mellett, Deputy Chief of Staff, Irish Defence Forces. An exhibition on his life and works will launch in Mayo County Library, Castlebar, that same evening.
Were you to take a peek into Louis Brennan’s garden as it looked in 1907, you would see a model locomotive whizzing through the air balanced upon a solitary wire as if it were a tightrope walker, then leaning into curves like a motorcyclist. It swooped over lily ponds, thundered down earthen slopes and the, just as it seemed certain to plunge into a brick wall, it turned sharply and started the journey all over again.
This was the prototype of Louis Brennan’s Gyroscopic Monorail. When Winston Churchill came to view it, he remarked, ‘Sir, your invention promises to revolutionise the railway systems of the world’.
Over the next three years, Churchill would do his very best to ensure that Brennan’s gyroscopic monorail would become the must-have transport system of the 20th century. He did not succeed but nonetheless, with a torpedo and a helicopter also under his belt, Brennan must surely be the most remarkable inventor ever born in Ireland.
Louis Philip Brennan was born on Main Street, Castlebar, Co. Mayo, on 28 January 1852, the tenth child and sixth son of Thomas Brennan, a hardware merchant in the town, and his wife Honor, nee McDonnell.
He was considerably younger than his eldest brothers Patrick John Brennan, who became a teacher in Melbourne in 1856 (and who may have died as late as 1906), and Michael Brennan, who worked as a journalist with the Connaught Telegraph and who has two paintings in the National Gallery of Ireland.[i] At least five of his older siblings died as small children between 1842 and 1847.
Shortly after his ninth birthday, Louis set sail with his parents for a new life in the gold rush boomtown of Melbourne, Australia. His siblings Joseph and Mary Ann are also believed to have gone at this time. (It looks ike Joseph died in 1911 and Mary Ann in 1890). From school he went on to study at a technical college, mastering engineering through evening classes at Collingwood Artisan’s School of Design. At the Juvenile Industries Exhibition held in Victoria in 1873, 21-year-old Brennan dazzled the crowds with inventions such as a window safety latch, a mincing machine and a billiard marker.
His work soon caught the eye of Alexander Kennedy Smith, a wealthy Scotsman who ran the biggest foundry in Melbourne and who became the city’s Mayor in 1875.[ii] Encouraged by Smith, Brennan let his mind run wild with the possibilities of creation.
One afternoon, while toying with a cotton reel, the young Irishman devised a concept that would ultimately lead him to invent the world’s first successful guided missile.[iii] It occurred to him that when he pulled the thread on the reel from underneath, the reel moved away. It also appeared that the faster he pulled the thread, the quicker it moved away. Over the ensuing weeks, he tried to think of things that needed to go away at speed and never come back. Mr. Smith, his employer, was an officer in the Victoria Volunteer Artillery Regiment. When Louis discovered that the VVAR’s sister outfit was the Victoria Torpedo Corps, he stroked his chin and thought ‘Eureka’.
Fast forward to the spring of 1879 and the 27-year-old Irishman was to be found striding around the shores of Melbourne’s Hobson Bay, addressing the State governor and an assorted collection of senior army and navy officers. This was to be the first exhibition of the new wire-driven Brennan Torpedo, which he patented on 1 February 1878.[iv]
According to one rather morbid officer, the torpedo was shaped ‘like a child’s coffin’, a square box tapering to a sharp bow and stern. It contained two internal reels, each holding 3km of wire, connected to two propellers. As the crowd watched, a steam-driven machine – located on-shore - extracted the reel-wires at breakneck speed. The cogs spun, the propellers whizzed, the wires stretched and the torpedo shot into the air. A gunner literally steered it towards a small target boat four hundred yards away, using left- and right-hand guide wires, keeping track of its positioning with a small mast that jutted above the waves. The torpedo ran for just over a minute at a speed of 11 knots before striking the boat. The flight pattern had been unnervingly erratic and it plunged with alarming regularity but it had struck the target. The military highbrow were impressed. The Royal Navy headquarters in London were informed and Brennan was invited to give a demonstration in Britain.[v]
It took four years to convince the British that Brennan’s torpedo was an essential weapon. The Royal Navy were understandably wary of a device so cumbersome that it required a railway system to move it, as well as observation points, engine houses and giant steam winchers. The missile itself weighed three tonnes and, as well as 100kg of explosives, each reel required 1,125 yards of wire in order to achieve a run of 350 yards.
However, Brennan was fortunate to find favour with Sir Andrew Clarke, a former Surveyor General of Victoria and close colleague of Alexander Smith. Clarke, who was raised in Donegal and educated at Portoroa, Enniskillen, was now Britain’s Inspector-General of Fortifications and he urged the War Office to show greater faith in Brennan’s invention.[vi]
By 1883, the British War Office were so impressed with the missiles' defensive capabilities that they began to invest heavily in ensuring it became a viable and imperative weapon. [vii] By 1885, the missile could be guided all the way to its target, with a range of 3km, travelling at 40kph and cruising three metres below the surface of the sea. The Mayo man’s invention was to remain the most vital cog in Britain’s coastal defence system for the next twenty years until it was phased out and replaced by the new 9.2 inch gun.
Precisely how the original torpedo was modified is unknown because everything was carried out under procedures of extreme secrecy. For instance, any team working on the project were kept in complete ignorance of what every other team were doing. Such mystery may have been part of an elaborate strategy to bluff Britain’s overseas adversaries. No foreign power ever succeeded in copying Brennan’s torpedo but perhaps no foreign power felt it was worth copying.[viii] To this date, certain details of the Brennan’s internal workings remain classified knowledge.
Brennan was handsomely rewarded for his invention. In 1887, Lord Salisbury’s British government paid him a lump sum of £30,000 (or close to €3 million today), to be followed by a further £80,000 (about €8 million today) over the next five years. He was also appointed superintendent of the new Brennan Torpedo Factory at Gillingham in Kent at a salary of £1,500 p.a. (€185,000).[ix] ‘It is not only your torpedo we want to buy,’ explained Edward Stanhope, the war minister who brokered the deal. ‘We want to buy your brains as well.’
Between 1884 and 1894, a series of brick and stone ‘Brennan’s torpedo forts’ were erected over harbours along the coast of Britain, as well as at strategic naval bases like Malta and Hong Kong. The only station to be built in Brennan’s native Ireland was at Fort Camden (now Fort Meagher), near Crosshaven, County Cork, which was positioned to defend Cork Harbour and completed in 1895 at a cost of £9,225, or just over a million Euro in today’s money. A source of much delight to 21st century industrial archaeologists, you can still see the tracks and tunnels of the Cork fort to this day.[x]
Meanwhile, Brennan was enjoying the high life in London, becoming a regular at the Royal levees, dinners and other soirees taking place in a city of extraordinary confidence. At Queen Victoria’s birthday honours in May 1892, the 39-year-old Irishman was honoured with the CB (Companion of the Most Honoruable Order of the Bath). On September 10th 1891, he was married in Mount Argus Passionist Church, Dublin, to Miss Anna Mary Quinn, a childhood sweetheart from his hometown of Castlebar and eldest daughter of Mr and Mrs Michael Quin, Ellison Street, Castlebar.
Brennan used his torpedo fortune to build a large house for his wife and three children beside the torpedo factory in Gillingham. Overlooking the River Medway and with long, rambling gardens, he called the house ‘Woodlands’. As Anna had a heart condition, he invented what he called the ‘Helping Hand’ stair lift to help her ascend the stairs. He also built a recess into the floor of the main hall into which a Billiard Table could be lowered when not in use, thus enabling the room to be used for dancing.
By 1896, the Irish inventor had turned his attention to the creation of his gyroscopically-balanced monorail, an idea he became obsessed with when he purchased a wind-up toy from a street pedlar for his son. Nine years later, he announced that his new invention was ready to roll. With one eye on his bank balance, he stated that it was ideally suited to military use, confidently declaring that it would soon supersede the double track railways of the Victorian Age.
When Brennan invited Britain’s leading scientists and engineers to view his locomotive in action in his garden, he tried to ensure that the 800-metre track simulated reality as much as possible. As such, he included a section where the track had been bent sideways as if by earthquake damage, and another section where the train continued over a chasm on just a single steel cable, where a conventional train would have needed a viaduct.
The press loved it, dubbing it the "Blondin railway" after the famous tightrope walker. With Churchill’s support, Brennan persuaded the War Office to let him use the vacant torpedo works to further develop his monorail. Churchill also bullied the India Office into giving him a secret grant of £5000. The Maharajah of Kashmir, convinced that a monorail would be the perfect way to traverse the Himalayan foothills, put up another £5000. Such investment was vital as Brennan had already sunk his fortune into the venture and was now paying his workers out of his own increasingly empty pocket.
In 1910, ever wise to the power of spectacle, Brennan demonstrated his updated monorail at the Japan-British Exhibition in London with such aplomb that the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith went on board for a much-publicized ride and Brennan picked up the coveted Grand Prize. There was no doubt that Brennan’s monorail could offer a cheaper, faster and smoother method of travel to the conventional railway. But was it safe? What would happen if his spinning train broke down? Wouldn’t it simply keel over and crash? Facing bankruptcy, Brennan faltered, replying that his system could never break down. His answer was unsatisfactory and, one by one, the War Office, the India Office and the Kashmiri government rejected his gyroscope. So too did Major John Bellaine, who had been considering it for an extension to the Alaska Central Railroad. As the world tumbled into war, the monorail project was abandoned and it would be another seventy years before people could ride on tilting trains.
Brennan had spent so much on the monorail project that he was forced to sell his home and return to work. During the war, he moved to the Royal Aircraft Establishment factory at Farnborough, serving in the munitions inventions department.
In 1919, he convinced the Air Ministry to commission him to invent the world’s first helicopter. His experiments took place in a closely guarded aerodrome, making it one of the greatest talking points in post-war engineering circles. Could one really devise an aeroplane that would hover? The British government spent vast sums on Brennan’s project. By the summer of 1922, it looked like the Irish septuagenarian was about to gain fresh laurels when, with a pioneering use of rotor technology, his new ‘helicopter’ very briefly rose into the air, complete with a pilot and 250lb weight. [xi] The New York Times giddily described the event as ‘one of the most important and far-reaching steps yet made in the history or aeronautics’. However, those within the bolted aerodrome knew that all was not so rosy. Brennan’s helicopter was not quite right. [xii] Three years later, it had still not been launched and there were ominous reports that serious damage had been caused to the superstructure when it crash-landed during a take off. In February 1926 the air ministry closed down Brennan’s operation, reasoning that progress was simply too slow and they could no longer afford it.
Brennan was devastated but vowed to continue with his experiments. Inevitably he poured his last remaining shillings into his doomed enterprise. On 26th December 1931, just months after the death of his wife, Brennan was knocked down by a car at Montreux, Switzerland. He died a few days short of his eightieth birthday on 17 January 1932. Nine days later, following a Requiem Mass at Westminster Cathedral, he was buried in plot. No 2454 at St. Mary's Cemetery in London’s Kensal Green.[xiii]
Louis Brennan will always be remembered as the inventor of the torpedo and the monorail. Amongst the other thirty-eight inventions he patented were the Brennanograph (a five-key silent typewriter similar to those used by stenographers in law courts), a pocketsize recording machine and a two-wheeled “Gyrocar”. London's Science Museum has a small working model of his monorail train, while the Royal Engineers Museum of Military Engineering in Kent holds the last surviving Brennan torpedo. Gillingham Library retains the archive of his papers. He was also one of the founding members of the National Academy of Ireland in 1922.
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’
[i] The Castlebar RC records of marriage commenced in 1824 and baptism records in 1838. The earlier records are not comprehensive.
Thomas Brennan and Honor McDonnell married on 22 November 1835 (witnesses: Thomas Joyce and Margaret Coughlin). They had issue at least eleven children:
1. Patrick Bennan, who went to Australia in 1856 and accepted a teaching appointment in Melbourne.
2. Catherine born 22 Oct. 1837
3. Michael Brennan (1839-1871) who worked as a journalist and caricaturist with the Connaught Telegraph. He later attended art schools in Dublin and London, and became an artist of merit. Two of his paintings are in the National Gallery of Ireland: “A Vine Pergola” and “Church Interior at Capri”. He died in Algiers in 1871 and was buried there.
3. Ellenor Brennan, baptised 1 May 1841 (sponsors: Patrick Brennan and Catherine McMahon).
4. Julia Brennan, baptised 30 September 1842 (sponsors: Michael Clifford and Mary Nailor).
5. Thomas Daniel Brennan, baptised 19 September 1844 (sponsors: Thomas Horan and Bridget Murphy).
6. Bedilia Brennan, baptised 18 April 1846 (sponsors: Thomas Brennan and Alicia Brennan).
7. Joseph Brennan, baptised 6 November 1847 (sponsors: Patrick Mc Greal and Margaret O Connor).
8. Michael Brennan, baptised 1 November 1848 (sponsors: Michael Murry and Anne Murry). This one is confusing because they already had a son called Michael who would have been 11 in 1848.
9. Mary Anne Brennan, baptised 2 February 1850 (sponsors: Michael Brennan and Mary Foy).
10. Louis Brennan, baptised 2 April 1852 (sponsors: Louis Shiel and Winifred Fergus), the inventor.
11. Thomas Peter Geore Brennan, baptised 28 November 1853 (sponsors: Peter O Malley and Mrs O Malley). He later lived in Brooklyn, New York with his aunt and uncle, Michael F. Brennan and Jemima Hoban.
The family grave in Castlebar cemetery contains the following details, albeit in Irish, which would appear to tie in with the above names.
1.Eileen died at 18 months September 1842 - Eleanor would be 16 months so that is close
2. Caitlin died at 5 1/2 years February 1843 - Catherine would be 5 years 4 months
3. Joan died at 2 years September 1844 - Julia would be exactly 2 years
4. Thomas Daniel born 1 Sept. 1844 Thomas Don died at 4 months January 1845 - Thomas Daniel would be 4 months
5. Bedilia born 3 April 1846 - Brid died at 13 months May 1847 - Bedelia would be 13 months.
They may have been related to Thomas Brennan, co-founder of the Irish National Land League which was established in Castlebar in 1879. He is supposed to have been born in Beauparc, Co. Meath in 1853 and emigrated to Omaha where he practised law.
[ii] Smith’s foundry and workshop at Carlton built gas works at Ballarat, Castlemaine, Sandhurst and Newcastle and provided plans and specifications for gas supplies for many centres in New South Wales and Victoria.
[iii] Others say the idea for the torpedo’s unique propulsion system came to Brennan while he was day-dreaming in front of a belt-driven planning machine in Smith’s foundry. It was probably a culmination of many thoughts.
[iv] Other people had invented guided missiles, controlled using compressed air or electricity, but these had ultimately proved impractical failures. Brennan’s was simpler in concept and was proven to run over an adequate range at an acceptable speed.
[v] The public tests in Hobson’s were ultimately the last time the Brennan Torpedo was demonstrated in full view of the world. Within three years, government security precautions had transformed the Brennan into a ‘secret weapon’ to be kept hidden faraway from prying eyes.
To finance his journey to Britain, Brennan founded the Brennan Torpedo Company with John Temperley, the civil engineer who had provided much-needed funds in return for half of the rights to Brenna’s patent. Brennan and Temperley were issued four hundred fully paid shares each, in return for suddendering their interest in the patent to the new company. Further capital was provided by two other shareholders, Charles and Edwin Millar. Smith, now a member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly, convinced the Victorian government to grant Brennan £700 shortly before the company’s formation.
[vi] In the summer of 1881 a special Royal Engineer committee reported back to then secretary of state for war, the Rt Hon Hugh CE Childers, strongly recommending that an improved model of Brennan’s torpedo be built at government expense. Childers was already hampered by cutbacks in arms expenditure, a policy that provoked controversy when Britain found itself fighting first the Boers in South Africa in 1880 and invading Egypt in 1882.
[vii] On 13 February 1883, the Brennan Torpedo Company signed an agreement with the British government, under which £5000 was paid to cover all expenses incurred to date. The inventor was simultaneously given a three year contract on a ‘mutually agreed fixed remuneration’. The government also provided Brennan with a workshop at the School of Military Engineering at Chatham, and plenty of skilled labour.
[viii] Some wondered if the secrecy was because Brennan did not want people to know that the pendulum and hydrostatic valve system he installed for depth-control had originally been invented (but never patented) by Robert Whitehead in 1868. That seems unlikely and in any case, the secrecy was at the behest of the Royal Engineers. To add to the mystery, the depth-keeping apparatus arrived in sealed units which only a select few were allowed to look at.
[ix] Brennan remained on as consulting engineer from 1896 to 1907. Temperley, as his deputy, was to receive yearly remuneration of £1,200 (€145,000).
[x] Indeed, these relics have probably done as much as anything to keep Brennan’s memory alive for torpedo enthusiasts and Australian historians who are understandably eager to dredge up any of their 19th century icons who may have helped advance global technology. Although the number of Brennan torpedoes built were probably no more than a few hundred, it has garnered much more attention over the years than the Fiume and Woolwich torpedoes, the production of which ran into tens of thousands.
[xi] The Times, Wednesday, Feb 08, 1922; pg. 5; Issue 42950; col A
[xii] In May 1923 when the Air Ministry offered a prize of £50,000 to the inventor of the first successful helicopter but a an Air Ministry employee, the 71-year-old Brennan was debarred from the award. £50,000 Helicopter Prizes. Official Conditions. The Times, Friday, May 11, 1923; pg. 12; Issue 43338; col C
[xiii] He was survived by a son and a daughter. His son, Captain Michael Brennan, RE, had a distinguished war record in the Great War but died young in London on Monday November 21st 1933, less than two years after his father.