Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame

Fairfield Shipyard

Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Company Limited, Govan, Glasgow - renamed in 1886 as the successor to Randolph, Elder & Co and John Elder & Co.

John ElderJohn Elder (1824-1869), marine engineer and shipbuilder, who developed practical compounding marine engines and conceived the modern integrated shipbuilding yard

Engineering achievements

John Elder gave the world three major contributions to engineering and shipbuilding:

  • The practical development of compounding in marine engines. This made long-distance steam shipping both possible and economic, and also improved the economics of shorter-haul steam navigation. It allowed the extension of steam power to cargo liners and tramp ships, and greatly accelerated the substitution of steam for sail in the world's shipping. To this should be added his patent for triple and quadruple expansion marine engines, foreshadowing later 19th century developments.
  • The conception of the modern heavy engineering workshop, with overhead gantry cranes, as embodied in the Centre Street works extension, and developed, probably on his initiative, in the still-existing Fairfield Engine Works in Govan.
  • The conception of the modern integrated shipbuilding yard. With only minor alterations the plan of the present Govan Shipyard survives largely as John Elder conceived it. It was the foremost yard on the Clyde until the great liners were built at John Brown's, and has outlasted most, including the builder of the "Queens". As one of BAe Systems' yards, it is still a highly effective production unit, notable for building the largest elements of the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers.
  • At its peak production in 1868-69, the final eighteen months of Elder's life, the Fairfield Yard employed 4,000 people and produced 18 engine sets of 6100 aggregate horsepower and 14 ships of 27,000 aggregate tonnage. Elder had created one of the greatest enterprises of its kind in the world.

    His Life

    Age Event Year
    Born 8th March in Glasgow, Scotland, the son of David Elder, chief designer with Robert Napier 1824
    Entered Glasgow High School
    Attended classes at University of Glasgow under Lewis Gordon
    Premium apprentice at Robert Napier & Sons, Glasgow
    Experience as pattern-maker and draughtsman in England
    24 Appointed chief draughtsman, Robert Napier & Sons Lancefield Foundry1848
    28 Left Napier to join Randolph, Elliot & Co 1852
    28 Company renamed Randolph, Elder & Co 1852
    29 First patent for a compound engine1853
    30 Engines installed in the Brandon reduced coal consumption by 30% 1854
    32 Engines installed in the Inca reduced coal consumption by 40% 1856
    33 Married to Isabella Ure 1857
    34 Elder and his partners established an iron shipbuilding yard at Govan 1858
    34 Patents the three cylinder compound engine 1858
    39 First high-speed naval compound engine for HMS Constance 1863
    39 Patented plate-iron floating docks 1863
    40 Relocated shipbuilding works to a custom-designed layout at Fairfield, Govan1864
    42 Lecture on marine engines to United Service Institution 1866
    43 Patented improvements in "floating batteries" (circular warships) 1867
    42 Lecture on circular warships to United Service Institution 1868
    44 President-elect of the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland 1869
    45 Died 17th September in London before he could take office as IESIS President 1869

    His Legacy

    Elder was an innovative engineer and shipbuilder and a practical entrepreneur. He built on the reputations of Robert Napier and of his father David Elder to establish a world-class shipbuilding and marine engineering business. Elder succeeded with his compound engines because, according to Rankine, he "had thoroughly studied and understood the principles of the then almost new science of thermodynamics". His improved engines ran with 25% to 40% less coal than any previous marine engine, rendering it practicable to carry on steam navigation on the Pacific Ocean with profit.

    Elder was also a model employer of his 4,000 workforce, with a real concern for the well-being of his men and their families. At his funeral, as reported by the Rev. Norman MacLeod "a very army of workmen, dressed like gentlemen, followed his body - column after column. Respectful crowds lined the streets, as if gazing on the burial of a prince; and every one of us .. felt that we had left a friend behind us."

    His statue in Elder Park, Govan, erected by public subscription in 1888, carries the inscription: "By his many inventions, particularly in connection with the compound engine, he effected a revolution in engineering second only to that accomplished by James Watt, and in great measure, originated the developments in steam propulsion which have created modern commerce" and: "His unwearied efforts to promote the welfare of the working classes, his integrity of character, firmness of purpose, and kindness of heart, claim, equally with his genius, enduring remembrance".

    More Information

    A memoir of John Elder, engineer and shipbuilder W J Macquorn Rankine, Blackwood, 1871
    A History of the Growth of the Steam-engine Robert Henry Thurston, 1883, reprinted 2001 by Adamant Media Corporation
    Memoirs and portraits of one hundred Glasgow men John Elder in Vol I, pp 115-122, James MacLehose, 1886
    The modern marine engine Charles W Hyde, The Marine Number of Cassier's Magazine, pp 441-458, 1897
    A Short History of Marine Engineering E C Smith, pp 174-186, 1937
    Ships and Shipbuilders John Elder pp 129-130, Fred M Walker, Seaforth, 2010
    His widow endowed the John Elder Chair of Naval Architecture at the University of Glasgow
    Elder Park in Govan commemorates John and Isabella with statues of each
    Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry (full text available to subscribers and UK library members)

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