Newall, Robert Stirling (DNB00)

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NEWALL, ROBERT STIRLING (1812–1889), engineer and astronomer, was born at Dundee on 27 May 1812. Placed by his father in a mercantile office at Dundee, he early repaired to London, where, in the employment of Robert McCalmont, he carried on a series of experiments on the rapid generation of steam. Having spent two years in promoting McCalmont's business interests in America, he took out a patent in 1840 for the invention of wire ropes, and in conjunction with his partners, Messrs. Liddell & Gordon, established at Gateshead-on-Tyne works for their manufacture, their world-wide use quickly creating a new and extensive industry of wire-drawing. The process of their production, continually improved by him, was finally simplified by his introduction of a new machine in 1885. The submarine telegraph cable assumed its definitive form through Newall's initiative. He not only turned the insulating power of guttapercha to account for its construction, but added the decisive improvement of surrounding the guttapercha with strong wires. The first successful cable, that laid between Dover and Calais on 25 Sept. 1851, was accordingly turned out from his works, and he continued the manufacture on a large scale. In 1853 he invented the ‘brake-drum’ and cone for laying cables in deep seas, and the apparatus is the only one now used. Owing to the scarcity of engineers competent to deal with the special difficulties of the work, Newall himself directed the submergence of many of his cables. Among these were the lines from Holyhead to Howth, Dover to Ostend, Malta to Corfu, besides several others in the Mediterranean, Suez to Aden, Aden to Kurrachee, Constantinople and Varna to Balaclava in 1855. For this last important service his firm received the thanks of the government. Half of the first Atlantic cable was manufactured at his works. Under disastrous circumstances Newall's fortitude was admirable. He never winced at the snapping and sinking of a cable worth thousands of pounds. The last submarine line laid by him personally was that connecting Ringkjobing in Denmark with Newbiggen, Northumberland, in 1868.

Meanwhile he found time for scientific pursuits. A series of drawings of the sun, made by him from 1848 to 1852, are extant, and to his enterprise was due a great increase in the size of refracting telescopes. Having noticed at the Great Exhibition of 1862 two immense discs of flint and crown glass respectively, by Messrs. Chance of Birmingham, he acquired and placed them in the hands of Thomas Cooke (1807–1868) [q. v.] of York, optician. The resulting object-glass was shown at the Newcastle meeting of the British Association in 1865; but the telescope was not ready for work until 1871. It was equatorially mounted on the German plan; it possessed the heretofore unprecedented aperture of twenty-five inches, with a focal length of thirty feet. The delay, however, in its completion frustrated Newall's intention of observing with it in Madeira, business compelling his almost constant presence in England, and the giant instrument was provisionally set up in the garden of Ferndene, his residence near Gateshead, where it attracted native and foreign visitors, but was rendered nearly useless by adverse skies. Newall's generous offers of it, first, in 1875, to a proposed physical observatory, then, in 1879, to Dr. Gill, on a seven years' loan, for the Cape Observatory, having come to nothing, he finally, on 2 March 1889, bestowed it, with its dome and appliances, upon the university of Cambridge for employment in stellar physics.

Newall married, on 14 Feb. 1849, Mary, youngest daughter of Mr. Hugh Lee Pattinson, F.R.S., who survives him. He left four sons and one daughter. He was mayor of Gateshead in 1867 and 1868, was alderman of the borough and justice of the peace. The River Tyne commission in 1876 counted him as one of its most active members, and he gave, with characteristic generosity, advice constantly in request on points connected with engineering. His promising schemes for a supply of water to Newcastle, and for a weir at the mouth of the Tyne, were not carried into execution. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1864, of the Royal Society in 1875, and became in 1879 a member of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers. He was decorated with the order of the Rose of Brazil in 1872, and a degree of D.C.L. was conferred upon him in 1887 by the university of Durham. He died at Ferndene on 21 April 1889.

He published two tracts: 1. ‘Observations on the Present Condition of Telegraphs in the Levant,’ &c., London, 1860. 2. ‘Facts relating to the Submarine Cable,’ London, 1882.

[Information from Mrs. Newall and Mr. Arthur Newall; Monthly Notices Royal Astron. Soc. l. 165; Proc. Royal Soc. vol. xlvi. p. xxxiii (Lockyer); Nature, xl. 59 (Rücker); Times, 25 April 1889; Athenæum, 27 April 1889; Ann. Reg. 1889, p. 141; Lockyer's Stargazing, Past and Present, pp. 119, 302; André et Rayet's Astronomie Pratique, i. 142; Observatory, xii. 197, 229; Newcastle Daily Leader, 23 April 1889.]

A. M. C.