Northern Ireland has established a wealth of invention and enterprise dating as far back as the 19th Century, the heavy industry may have gone but hopefully the spirit of enterprise has endured. In the 18th Century Belfast grew rapidly, by 1800 Belfast had a population of around 20,000 and by 1900 it had grown to approximately 400,000. During the 19th Century and as its population increased so did its industries.
The clang of cast-iron, this hiss of steam or the fiery blast of a furnace were the everyday backdrop to life in this busy, industrial region. No city in the world produced more ships or linen, more ropes, tobacco or tea than Belfast in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Those were the days when the ‘Belfast Symphony’ – the pulsating rhythm of the shipyard riveters’ hammers – rang out across the city as a token of employment and prosperity.
Belfast’s shipbuilding industry expanded rapidly in the late 19th century. Born in Yorkshire the son of a doctor, Edward Harland became the manager of a small shipbuilders in Belfast called Hickson’s in the mid 1800s. Hickson sold out to Harland in 1858 and raised £5000 to buy from Hickson with the help of G.C. Schwabe and his nephew Gustav Wolff who joined Harland as a partner and the famous Harland and Wolff shipbuilders was created. Harland and Wolff grew from strength to become arguably the greatest shipbuilder in the world and as the size and numbers of new ships increased, Harland & Wolff continuously expanded and improved their Queen’s Island yard.
James Mackie came from Scotland, originally he came to work in Drogheda but by 1890 he had settled in Belfast had started an engineering firm. By 1900 this firm was the largest engineering firm in Belfast outside the shipyard. Right up to the late 1960’s, James Mackie & Son was employing 6,000 people.
Samuel Davidson went to manage a tea plantation in Assam in 1864 and returned in 1870 to take out patent for tea drying machinery. By the end of the century his company, the Sirocco works, was the world leader in ventilation and fan manufacture.