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Louis Brennan (1852–1932)

by Mary Sandow

This article was published:

Louis Brennan (1852-1932), mechanical engineer, was born on 28 January 1852 at Castlebar, Ireland, son of Thomas Brennan and his wife Bridget, née McDonnell. In 1861 he went with his parents to Melbourne where he later worked as a watchmaker and was apprenticed to the engineer, Alexander Smith. At 22 he invented for coastal defence a torpedo which was propelled by counter-rotating screws driven by the unwinding of two fine steel wires from internal drums and steered by the differential action of the two wires which were wound on to drums on shore or on shipboard by a steam engine of twenty horse-power. Among the advantages claimed were that the torpedo could be retrieved if it missed its mark. William Kernot, then lecturer in engineering at the University of Melbourne, made calculations on which a working model was based, its test performances in 1879 on Hobson's Bay 'exciting wonder and approbation'. This work was aided by a grant of £700 from the Victorian government.

Brennan patented his torpedo invention in England on 4 September 1877. In 1880 the invention was brought to the attention of the British government and Brennan was asked to go to England. Experiments with the torpedo by the Royal Engineers at Chatham were so successful that he was awarded £5000 and £1000 a year while the invention was being tested. After five years of experiment the torpedo was accepted by the War Office, and in 1887 Brennan was granted £110,000, an amount which caused a stir in the press, and in the House of Commons an attempt was made to reduce it by £30,000. The government justified the sum on the grounds that secret components of the Brennan device should not fall into the hands of other countries; Engineering, 31 June, questioned both this assertion and the government's faith in the enduring superiority of Brennan's model, especially in comparison with self-propelled types which later superseded it. Moreover Brennan could not claim sole credit for the invention which had been improved by military men at government expense. The personal award to Brennan stood, however, although £500 went to Kernot, and in 1887 he was appointed superintendent of the government factory at Gillingham, Kent, established to manufacture the torpedo. The weapon was at first so successful that the War Office refused to supply a dozen of them to the Victorian government because the factory was too busy making them for imperial defence.

In 1896-1907 Brennan acted as consulting engineer at Gillingham. There he also worked on a monorail locomotive with gyroscopic stabilizers which he claimed to have first thought about in Australia after seeing the difficulty and cost of constructing railways in mountainous and sparsely populated areas. The monorail was shown in model form at a conversazione of the Royal Society in 1907 and given public trial at Gillingham in November 1909. Although designed to travel twice as fast as ordinary trains, his invention was not developed by the British government on the grounds that no system of transport relying upon a single support would enjoy public confidence.

In World War I Brennan served with the ministry of munitions. In 1919-26 he worked at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, on development of the helicopter but his model crashed on a trial run in October 1925. Although best known for his torpedo, monorail car and helicopter, Brennan invented other mechanical devices, including a form of bioscope which produced an animated effect from drawings or photographs. He was appointed C.B. in 1892 and elected an honorary member of the Royal Engineers Institute in 1906 and a foundation member of the National Academy of Ireland in 1922. On 10 September 1892 he had married Anna Louise, née Quinn. In January 1932 he was knocked down by a car at Montreux, Switzerland, and died on the 17th. He was survived by a son and daughter.

According to the Engineer, 29 January 1932, Brennan 'had all the charm of his race and was much beloved by all who knew him well. His ardour for invention never failed him, even when ill health dogged him and drove him out of England during the winter months. He was a familiar figure in the Savage Club, of which the Bohemian atmosphere appealed to his temperament, and will be much missed by his brothers'.

Select Bibliography

  • C. R. Gibson, 20th Century Inventors (Lond, 1913?)
  • T. D. Waters, Much Besides Music (Melb, 1951)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 29 May 1885, 12 Apr 1886, 10 Mar 1887, 21 Jan 1932
  • Australasian Sketcher, 29 June 1885
  • Engineering, 24 June, 1, 29 July 1887, 20 Jan 1888
  • 'Obituary: Mr. Louis Brennan', Times (London), 21 Jan 1932, p 14
  • 'Obituary: Mr. Louis Brennan, C.B.', Nature (London), 13 Feb 1932, pp 227-28
  • Victorian Defence Department, 85/2471 and 90/1147 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Kernot papers (privately held).

Citation details

Mary Sandow, 'Brennan, Louis (1852–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Louis Brennan (1852-1932), by unknown engraver

Louis Brennan (1852-1932), by unknown engraver

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S29/06/85/105

Life Summary [details]


28 January, 1852
Castlebar, Mayo, Ireland


17 January, 1932 (aged 79)
Montreux, Switzerland

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