Armstrong Mitchell Crane

The Armstrong Mitchell hydraulic crane, the only one of its kind left in the world with its unique no. 2919, is a spectacular sculptural piece of engineering which soars above the roofline of the most historic dockyard in the world.  

Urgent conservation is needed to halt its rapid decay.

This is the Fund's first Industrial Heritage project and reflects increasing awareness and enthusiasm for this history.

Venice in Peril Fund has been involved since 2003 and has spent €132,000 making the crane safe and maintaining its safety. More recently, in 2013, €15,000 was spent reinforcing the straps that hold the ballast container together and to update the report on its condition.
• Phase I of the full project is costed at €390,000 and a further approximately €1.6million will be needed to complete the project. 

in 2014 the Headley Trust made a grant of £20,000 to explore the options for funding the project which the Venice in Peril Fund is currently engaged in.  

If you are a passionate about Britain's engineering heritage and would like to know more, please get in touch - we would like to hear from you.  

Visiting the Armstrong Mitchell Crane

Visitors can see the crane on the dockside when they visit the Biennale art exhibitions in the Arsenale or join one of the increasing number of tours organised as part of Arsenale Open Days or by the Italian Navy or local associations. For further information about visiting the Arsenale click here

Panels describing how Venice in Peril Fund’s money has been spent are shown at the foot of the crane.

The Arsenale

The Arsenale dates from the 12th century and its unique architecture tells a remarkable story of this once secret world within the city.  It was enlarged between the 14th and 16th centuries and again after Napoleon's defeat of the Venetian Republic.  After the Unification of Italy in 1860, the Italian Navy commissioned one of Sir William Armstrong's innovative hydraulic cranes to provision the new ironclad battleships being built.

History of the crane

The Armstrong Mitchell Crane is unique, not only because it is the only remaining model of its type and a fine example of Britain's engineering past, but also because it has an important place in the history of Venice.

The second half of the nineteenth century was a pivotal time in the history of navigation. There was a radical transformation in the way vessels were constructed with the adoption of metal hulls and steam engines. These changes inevitably made a huge impact on shipyards and naval docks, including the Venice Arsenale, which became a naval garrison of huge strategic importance after the formation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1866. The port was constantly acquiring state of the art machinery, the most important of which was the great hydraulic crane produced by the British manufacturer Armstrong, Mitchell & Co. (installed between 1883 and 1885). 

" iconic structure..."

This crane was a breakthrough in engineering that represented a significant turning point in the evolution of the hydraulic crane. Making use of a new mechanism, the hydraulic accumulator, invented by William Armstrong himself, it permitted large quantities of water to be forced through pipes at a constant pressure, thus creating more power to lift heavier weights. The result was a considerable increase in load capacity (up to 160 tons). 

The idea of constructing a heavy-duty crane in the Venice Arsenale had been first proposed in 1881 by the shipbuilders working on the battleship Morosini (the first large warship with a metal hull to be built in the Venetian lagoon). Two years later the Italian navy commissioned Armstrong, Mitchell & Co. to install the crane. By 1885 it was fully functioning and in constant use for some 30 years until the First World War. After enduring serious war damage and being repaired several times, it was finally decommissioned in the mid-1950s.

Between 1876 and 1905, nine other Armstrong cranes were installed in naval dockyards around the world:

. La Spezia (1876) 
. Bombay (1877)
. Liverpool (1881)
. Malta (1883)
. Taranto and Venice (1885) 
. Pozzuoli (1887)
. Japan (1892 and 1905). 

The majority were destroyed during the Second World War, and of the remaining three, two were dismantled (La Spezia in 1969; Taranto in 1992). Only the Venice crane now survives, albeit with a serious structural problem - the counterweight chamber is cracking, and if that were to give way, the crane would collapse.

Understandably, in a country as rich with cultural heritage as Italy, a machine like this comes very low in public funding priorities. That is why it is so important for British organisations such as Venice in Peril Fund to step in with a helping hand to restore this landmark in engineering history to its former glory. Britain was the first country to industrialize, and as such has a large number of historic industrial sites and therefore experience of caring for them and engaging the interest of the general public. 

The conservation of the crane will be no easy feat. Structural surveys and scientific analyses have sharply demonstrated the huge amount of work to be done, but already a team of Italian engineers and British conservationists have stepped up to the challenge. As Lord Foster has said, it would be an "unforgivable act of negligence" to leave the crane to disintegrate. Describing it as an "iconic structure", he says it "is not only aesthetically inseparable form its historic context, but it is a priceless part of the industrial heritage of Venice".

Work on this project is being carried out in collaboration with the Superintendency of the Cultural Heritage of Venice in association with the University Institute of Architecture of VenicePadua University and Turin Polytechnic.

Please click here to view images of the Armstrong Mitchell Crane taken in 2010 by Micheal Harding for Patek Philippe.

Magician of the North by Henrietta Heald, Published autumn 2010

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