Four Lives to Remember – From Ejector Seats to the Stars

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Capt. Christopher Stricklin ejects from his F-16 aircraft without injury - Idaho 14 September 2003 - Public Domain Wikipedia
Capt. Christopher Stricklin ejects from his F-16 aircraft without injury – Idaho 14 September 2003 – Public Domain Wikipedia

James Martin – Inventor of the ejector seat

Early Life

James Martin was born near the village of Crossgar in County Down, 15 mile south of Belfast, on 11th August 1893. His father Thomas was a farmer at Killinchy Woods and his mother was Sarah Coulter. Thomas and Sarah had married on 22nd August 1888 at Saintfield Presbyterian Church. Their daughter Jane, was born on 12th March 1891. Unfortunately, Thomas Martin died on 18th August 1895 from tuberculosis.

In 1901 James and his sister and mother are living with his paternal grandmother on the family farm. James is still here in 1911 living with his mum and aunt Georgina.

Fascination with Innovation

James always had an enquiring mindset, preferring to tinker in his father’s workshop than work on the farm. His mother took him to see Frederick Fitzpatrick, Professor of Civil Engineering at Queen’s University in Belfast. However, James was of a more practical disposition and preferred construction and experimentation to lectures and examinations.

“James Martin displayed exceptional powers of inventiveness and, while still in his teens. had designed, made and sold a variety of machines. He had a great desire to invent and make things with his own hands, and, scorning conventional education, by dint of hard work and continuous study, he was an accomplished engineer long before the age of 21”

Business Success

In 1919 James left home and set up a small business in Acton, England near to his sister Jane and her husband Edwin Burrell. The engineering firm, situated in a shed with 3 employees, gradually acquired an impressive reputation.

“During the following years his business slowly developed as people began to recognise his innate abilities and inventiveness. He began to build one-off specialised vehicles and in 1923 he applied for a patent for a new design for body-frames of vehicles which was granted in 1925”

Prof Sir Bernard Crossland and John S Moore, The Lives of Great Engineers of Ulster, 2003


From this Martin moved on to his true passion, the building of aeroplanes. With his brother-in-law’s financial assistance, he moved to larger premises at Gerrard’s Cross in Buckinghamshire, named Martin’s Aircraft Works. Around this time James began to take flying lessons and his instructor was Welshman Captain Valentine Baker. Baker also taught Amy Johnston. In 1934 the two went into partnership and Martin-Baker Aircraft Company Ltd was formed. With Baker’s flying experience and Martin’s design capabilities the business flourished. The factory began to produce small monoplanes and the single-seater fighter planes.

On 28th February 1942 James married nurse Muriel Haines. The couple had twin boys and two daughters.

The Ejector Seat

Unfortunately, on 12th September 1942 Valentine Baker was killed in an air crash while testing the MB3 prototype plane. The loss of his friend had a huge impact on James and he turned his attention towards developing safety devices.

With the new jet age, the chances of a pilot bailing out of a stricken plane were almost impossible. The Air Ministry needed to think of ways to safeguard airmen and turned to James Martin.

In 1945 Martin began experimenting with the idea of ejector seats. This involved an explosive charge which would propel the seat out of the aeroplane in an emergency situation. The pilot could then pull the ripcord of his personal parachute. The device was tested out in Defiant Planes using dummies. The first live testing happened on 24th July 1946 with Bernard Lynch in the cockpit.

Ejection seat - Wikipedia Public Domain Image
Ejection seat – Wikipedia Public Domain Image

The standard M-B ejector seat went into production in 1947. It was adopted by air-forces throughout the world. The first person actually recorded as being saved by using the ejector seat was John Lancaster in an A52 ‘flying wing’. The Martin-Baker Company continues to supply ejector seats internationally. The firm is still run by James’s descendants. It has been reckoned that over 7,000 lives have been saved by this remarkable invention.


In 1950 Martin received an OBE [Order of the British Empire] for his contribution to aircraft safety. He was also awarded a CBE [Commander of the British Empire] in 1957 and a Knight Bachelor in 1965. James Martin died on 5th January 1981 at his home, Southlands Manor, Denham.

James Martin - Newsletter 7 January 1981
James Martin – Newsletter 7 January 1981

His achievements were recognised in 2004 when Martin was inducted into the International Air and Space Hall of Fame. The Northern bank also issued a £100 note bearing his likeness as part of their Inventors series. A silver plaque commemorating James Martin has been erected in his home town of Crossgar.

Thomas Romney Robinson – Astronomer and Inventor

Starry Starry Night - Public Domain Image Piqsels
Starry Starry Night – Public Domain Image Piqsels

Early Life

John Thomas Romney Robinson, known as Thomas, was born in Dublin on 23rd April 1792. He was the son of Thomas Robinson, a portrait painter, and Ruth Buck. His middle name Romney was after the famous English artist George Romney, with whom his father had served his apprenticeship.

While still an infant the family moved to Dromore in County Down under the patronage of Bishop Percy. In 1801 the Robinsons settled in Belfast. At first, they lodged with Mr Arthur Quinn, a bootmaker in High Street then they rented a house in Castle Street near to the Bank Buildings.

Thomas Romney Robinson Portrait by his Father Thomas Robinson
Thomas Romney Robinson Portrait by his Father Thomas Robinson
Thomas Romney Robinson Portrait also by his Father Thomas Robinson
Thomas Romney Robinson Portrait also by his Father Thomas Robinson

A Brilliant Mind

Thomas was a very gifted child who could read by the age of 3 and published a book of poetry ‘Juvenile Poems’ when he was 13. He studied at Belfast Academy and graduated from university at age 16. He became a Fellow of Trinity College Dublin at only 21.

“…the day he was four Thomas was presented with a book on natural history, with pictures and prose descriptions. This was the means of leading him to test the possibilities of other joys and from that day onward he began to show the beginnings of a love of science in which he made such a mark in later life”

F J Bigger Belfast Newsletter 24th December 1929

A Growing Reputation

Robinson was employed as a deputy professor of natural philosophy at Trinity. His published lectures ‘A System of Mechanics’ became the standard textbook. In 1816 he was elected to the Royal Irish Academy and was librarian for the society for 5 years.

Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy - Vol 6
Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy – Vol 6

In 1823 Robinson was appointed director of the Armagh Observatory, one of the chief astronomical observatories of the day. He held this post for 59 years until his death in 1882.

While at Trinity he had also been ordained an Anglican priest, so he supplemented his meagre wages at the observatory with a ‘church living’, first at Enniskillen and subsequently at Carrickmacross.

The Armagh Observatory © Rossographer, Geograph Ireland - ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Armagh Observatory © Rossographer, Geograph Ireland – ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)


Robinson was an enthusiastic and avid researcher of physics and astronomy. He was a close friend of William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse. Parsons had developed the most powerful telescope the world had so far seen, the Leviathan of Parsonstown.

Thomas Romney Robinson was the first person to write a comprehensive catalogue of the stars, comprising 5,345 different stars. This huge body of work was the culmination of 25 years of detailed, accurate observation. This was published in Dublin in 1859. He was awarded a Royal Medal for this outstanding work.

The Anemometer

In 1846 Robinson invented the hemispherical cup-anemometer. This device could measure the speed and direction of wind. This invention has been used world-wide.

“Apart from astronomy he [Robinson] also had a great interest in meteorology. He invented the cup-anemometer, the wind measuring device that is, with only minor changes, still in widespread use today. He also helped establish the first automated weather stations in the British Isles, situating one of the seven – naturally – at the Observatory”


Robinson was president of the Royal Irish Academy from 1851-1856.He was an active member and organiser of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, of which he was president in 1849. He was also a member of the Royal Astronomical Society and wrote more than 20 books on scientific subjects. He was one of the founding fathers of the Armagh Natural Historical and Philosophical Society.

Provincial Directory - Armagh 1865
Provincial Directory – Armagh 1865

On 1st August 1821 Thomas married Eliza Isabelle Rambaut with whom he had 3 children. After her death in 1839 he married Lucy Jane Edgeworth, half-sister of the author Maria Edgeworth.

In later years Thomas lost his eyesight. He died on 28th February 1882 of acute bronchitis, aged 89.

Robinson was a remarkable man who enjoyed popularity as a public speaker and conversationalist. He read Greek, Latin, Spanish, French and Italian. His large collection of rare and antiquarian books, as well as all his papers, are stored in the archives of the Armagh Observatory library. As recognition of his work in the field of astronomy he has a crater on the moon named after him – the Robinson Crater.

Newsletter 24 Dec 1929
Newsletter 24 Dec 1929

John Boyd Dunlop – Inventor of the Pneumatic Tyre

Dunlop Advert - Public Domain Image
Dunlop Advert – Public Domain Image

Early Life

John Boyd Dunlop was born on 5th February 1840 in North Ayrshire in Scotland. He studied veterinary science at Edinburgh University and moved to Ireland when he was 27. With his brother James he set up the Downe Veterinary Clinic in the town of Downpatrick in County Down.

On 11th December 1871 John married farmer’s daughter Margaret Stevenson in the Presbyterian Church at Ballymena. The couple subsequently moved to Belfast where they had two children, John Boyd on 27th August 1877 at 19 May Street and Jane Willis on 23rd May 1880 at 50 Gloucester Street. Dunlop established a very successful veterinary practice at 38-42 May Street, close to the town’s animal market.

Dunlop’s Pneumatic Tyre

It is said that one day in 1887 while watching 9-year-old Johnny riding his tricycle on the cobbled yard, John thought he could come up with a better solution than metal wheels. He set himself to work with sheet rubber and the result was the inflatable or pneumatic tyre which he attached to the wheel using Irish linen.

Dunlop continued experimenting with various techniques, moving onto larger wheels. He practised and tested out his new design in Cherryvale Sports Ground in south Belfast. In December 1888 he patented the Dunlop Bicycle Tyre.

The following year, Willie Hume, captain of the Belfast Cruisers Cycling Club, won all four cycling events at Queens College (now University) using the Dunlop tyre.

News of the success spread and Dunlop went into partnership with Harvey du Cross, president of the Irish Cyclists Association. However, John Boyd retired in 1895 before Dunlop Rubber had its great marketing triumph with tyres for motor cars at the turn of the century.

Dunlop Poster - Public Domain Image
Dunlop Poster – Public Domain Image

However similar pneumatic designs had been patented in Scotland, France and the USA – the earliest being Robert William Thomson from Scotland who patented the idea of an inflatable tyre in 1846 but was unable to create one at that time. Dunlop’s patent was revoked.

While Dunlop is credited with invention of the (functioning) inflated tyre in Ireland, he never made much money from his innovation.

“…..automotive historians universally look at John Dunlop as the father of the modern pneumatic tire”


John Boyd Dunlop was a recognizable figure in his adopted town, he was frequently seen on the streets of Belfast riding his bicycle.

“The residents (Markets area) used to attend all the student sports meetings. They used also attend the cycling races and to cheer on John Boyd Dunlop’s riders on the newly invented pneumatic tyres – for the whole development of the Dunlop tyre took place in these streets, since Dunlop, a veterinary surgeon, had premises in Gloucester Street and May Street, and was a well-known and popular figure”

C E B Brett & R McKinstry, Ulster Architectural Heritage Society 1971

John Boyd Dunlop died at his Dublin home on 23rd October 1921, aged 81. He is buried in Dean’s Grange Cemetery. There is a ‘Blue Plaque’ commemorating him at his old premises on May Street. In the 1980’s the Northern Bank produced a £10 note bearing his likeness.

“He is today remembered as the crucial inventor who made riding bicycles and driving cars viable on all types of surfaces”
John Boyd Dunlop Blue Plaque
John Boyd Dunlop Blue Plaque

Andrew Ashe – World Famous Musician

Playing the flute - Public Domain
Playing the flute – Public Domain

Early Life

Andrew Ashe, son of Samuel Ashe, was born in Lisburn in County Down in 1758. Even as a young child his prodigious musical talent was recognised and he was sent to Woolwich in England to study. It is said that at the age of 9 he used a portion of his weekly allowance to pay for violin lessons from the musicians of the local Royal Artillery band.

Unfortunately, this chapter of the young Andrew’s life was to come to a premature end, when “on account of reverses of fortune” his parents could no longer afford to keep him in school. However, Count Bentinck, a member of the Duke of Portland’s family and a Colonel in the British army, came to the rescue. He was passing the school one day and saw the 12-year-old Andrew in tears. On discovering the reason for his distress, the Count decided to adopt Andrew Ashe in order to further his musical education.

Ashe travelled with the Count and his regiment to Minorca where he continued learning the violin. He subsequently accompanied the army on their travels throughout Europe.


As a young man, Andrew’s musical instrument of choice was the flute. He devoted himself to study and practice. His hard work paid off and he became the most famous and celebrated flautist of the day. He was renowned for “being one of the first to use additional keys” playing on the ‘improved’ six-keyed flute brought to the Hague by Sieur Vanhall (brother of the Czech composer Johann Vanhall). It is said that Ashe achieved proficiency on the instrument, even before its maker!

Under the patronage of an Irish gentleman, Mr Whyte, Andrew Ashe returned to his homeland. Here he played at the Rotunda Concerts in Dublin to a tumultuous reception.

“Ashe having long had a hankering after the land of his birth, from which he had been absent from infancy, willingly accepted Mr Whyte’s offer of accompanying him to Dublin. Not long after his arrival in Ireland, he was engaged for the Rotunda concerts in Dublin, which were then brilliantly supported. Here he remained for a few years, and the great applause his performances always met with, was a stimulus to further improvement”

Complete Encyclopaedia of Music

In the 1780’s he toured the north of Ireland along with other notable musicians. As his fame spread, Ashe was invited to London by the impresario Mr Solomon. Again, he impressed audiences throughout the city.

On 19th September 1799, Andrew married Mary Comer in Cheltenham. She herself was a well-known pianist and vocalist. The couple had a large family (12 children), several of whom became professional musicians themselves.

International Recognition

Andrew’s celebrity increased and he was feted by the ‘great and the good’ throughout Europe. He became the principal flautist in Brussels being the family musician for Lady Torrington and was received with great critical acclaim throughout the musical world. When the successful flautist and flute-maker Tebaldo Monzani retired, Ashe was appointed principal player with the Royal Italian Opera.

In 1810 when Venanzio Rauzzini died, Andrew Ashe was unanimously chosen to be director of the New Assembly Room Concerts in Bath. He remained here for 12 years.

Ashe spent his last years in retirement in Dublin. He died in 1838. His funeral took place on 30th April at Merrion cemetery, just outside the capital.

“…the north did produce one of the finest one- and four-keyed flute virtuosi in Andrew Ashe of Lisburn who settled in Dublin after making the grand tour of Europe and England, playing his flute at the concerts given in the Rotunda”

The Flute and Ireland, Our Musical Heritage Ulster Folk and Transport Museum 1984

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