Admiral Cochrane: Entrepreneurial engineer

The idea that a great naval hero such as Admiral Cochrane could simultaneously be the type of man who might work by flickering light on some far fetched idea in his garden shed was one that greatly intrigued me. So, when Stuart Allan approached me last year and requested that I research the creative element of Cochrane’s life, I instinctively accepted, having very little idea of what I would uncover in the process.

My main port of call for primary source material was the National Records of Scotland (formerly the National Archives of Scotland), whose collections feature the current exhibition Admiral Cochrane, The Real Master and Commander.

It was at times a difficult process trying to piece together the material relating to his various engineering projects and patents into one coherent chronological list. Although many books have been written about Cochrane, the majority have naturally tended to focus on his naval and political career, with only scant mention of his engineering endeavours.

Those familiar with Admiral Cochrane will be aware of his ‘secret war plans’ which advocated the use of chemical warfare against Britain’s enemies but the wide range of subject matter his projects touched upon proved surprising. Some of the things he worked on included street lighting, rotary steam engines, practical uses for bitumen, air compression in tunnel construction, pipe laying, smoke/gas extracting machines and screw propellers.

Plan for temporary mortars by Admiral Cochrane
Plan for temporary mortars by Admiral Cochrane. Click on the image to see a larger version.

As a general picture of the type of work Cochrane had been getting involved with began to emerge, the next difficulty presented itself. Attempting to actually understand and interpret the often rather technical notes and diagrams that accompanied Cochrane’s many projects was not a straightforward  task for either myself or Stuart (both of us being military history types with questionable scientific knowledge!).

This is where National Museums Scotland colleagues such as Alex Hayward, Alastair Dodds and Klaus Staubermann from the Science & Technology department came into the picture and really helped us out. They allowed us to not only very quickly put Cochrane’s work into context but also to accurately categorize him not as an inventor but more as an entrepreneurial engineer who, in many ways, was not that unusual for his time. This perfectly illustrated to me the very real benefits of what a multi-disciplinary organization such as National Museums Scotland can bring to such a project.

Throughout my research my main concern was perpetually wondering whether we were getting the fullest overview of Lord Cochrane’s engineering curriculum vitae. Needless to say, when you are working with historical records you often have to work with what you can find at the time and simply get on with it. This certainly turned out to be the case, but despite this I feel we touched upon and discovered the vast majority of projects Cochrane had been involved in throughout his lifetime.

It is difficult to say with any degree of certainty what his greatest engineering achievement is. None of his ideas created the vast fortune he had hoped for during his lifetime (one feels he would have been persistently rejected on Dragons’ Den) but some of his ideas did see use in the years and decades following his death. His ideas on the use of air compression in the construction of tunnels, for example, can probably be viewed as one of his most successful, as it was influential in the building of the Hudson tunnel in the United States.

What proved most surprising to me in the course of researching Admiral Cochrane’s engineering interests was that most of the ideas he worked on had a civilian application rather than a military or naval one. The sheer breadth of the subject matter his projects covered was also impressive. I believe these elements will also surprise and interest visitors to the exhibition and at the same time illustrate what a unique and intriguing character Admiral Cochrane was. As this was the very first exhibition I have ever contributed to, I obviously learnt a lot in the process and am just fortunate that Stuart Allan was kind enough to give me the opportunity to assist and help out. Conducting research is by its nature a solitary activity but it was made all the easier in this case by the constant support and advice I received from Stuart from start to finish.

Admiral Cochrane, The Real Master and Commander ran at National Museum of Scotland until 19 February 2012.

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