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20 May 2019

An Interesting Read: The Viagraph

March 1896 was memorable for the residents of Longhurst near Belfast, as they witnessed John Brown firing up his coke driven Serpollet, which included a `fire-box’ behind the rear axle, the proximity of which must have caused some alarm to those in the passenger seat. Taking two to three hours to generate enough steam for propulsion, the car was considered antiquated by 1902. It was however, believed to be the first car imported into Ireland. 

Brown had acquired the Serpollet from his friend Monsieur Doazan of St Omer, with whom he shared an interest in all things mechanical. The two friends visited Panhard et Levassor workshops together, Doazan leaving with a new Panhard and Brown, the old “hay motor”.

The Panhard was not the only superior development. Back in Ireland John Brown was to discover the inadequacy of roads in Ireland compared to those on the Continent. This discrepancy led him to invent a contraption called The Viagraph, or road indicator. The purpose of the instrument was to show comparisons between good and bad road surfaces in a bid to get the County Antrim road authorities to stump up the cash for road improvements.

The Viagraph was a straight edged skate that was passed over the road surface and could measure on paper, a profile of the roads undulations. It was initially tested on the road between Belfast and Lisburn, renowned for his potholes. Lauded by the press and the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, The Viagraph achieved its aim to push councils to re-surface roads. At the inception of the Irish Roads Improvement Association John Brown became its President. He balanced this responsibility with the creation of further transport inventions, including a novel type of electric car.

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