Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame

R.M.S. Persia R.M.S. Persia.

Robert NapierRobert Napier (1791-1876), shipbuilder and engine designer - "The Father of Clyde Shipbuilding"

Engineering achievements

In the days before Naval Architecture became a profession, Robert Napier combined his early interest in drawing and design with his family knowledge of engineering to design, build and power ships.

He designed his first marine engine, for the paddle steamer Leven, when he was 32 and at 36, he built the engines of the two fastest ships in the Northern Yacht Club's August Regatta. This earned him his reputation. When he was 37 he established Glasgow's Vulcan Foundry. The East India Company paddle steamer Berenice built by David Napier, (Robert's cousin) using Robert's engine, proved much faster than her sister ship Atalanta built on the Thames, beating her to India by 18 days on their maiden voyage in 1837.

His greatest success, however, came from his association with Samuel Cunard of Canada in the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. When the Cunarder Persia was launched in 1855 she was the world's largest ship.

In 1849 he built Leviathan, the world's first train ferry between Granton and Burntisland. In 1856 he built the Royal Navy's first iron-clad vessel, HMS Erebus. The ironclad HMS Black Prince launched from Govan in 1861 was, at 9800 tons, the largest ship yet built on the Clyde.

His Life

Age Event Year
Born in Dumbarton, Scotland on 18th June 1791
21 Completed apprenticeship in his father's works 1812
21 Assistant to Robert Stevenson, lighthouse builder 1812
23 Assistant to William Lang, Glasgow 1814
24 Set up in business as a smith 1815
27 Married his cousin Isabella Napier 1818
30 Took over the Camlachie Works, Glasgow, from David Napier 1821
32 Won order for paddle steamer Leven from James Lang 1823
36 Promoted skill as an engine builder in London 1827
36 Two fastest steamers in Northern yacht club regatta have Robert Napier designed engines 1827
37 Purchases Camlachie Works and Vulcan Foundry in Glasgow 1828
39 Hands over Camlachie works to his brother. Re-equips Vulcan Foundry to build large marine engines1830
44 Leases Lancefield works, Glasgow from his cousin David Napier 1835
46 Berenice beats Atalanta to India by 18 days on maiden voyage 1837
48 British and North American Steam-Packet Company established with Samuel Cunard 1839
50 Purchases Lancefield works1841
51 Begins building iron-hulled ships at Govan 1842
57 Takes over Parkhead Forge, Glasgow 1848
58 Leviathan train ferry launched 1849
61 Moves permanently to West Shandon, Gareloch 1852
64 Launch of the first Cunard ship RMS Persia 1855
65 HMS Erebus, the Royal Navy's first iron-clad vessel, launched 1856
70 HMS Black Prince, largest ship then built on the Clyde, launched 1861
72 Elected President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers 1863
77 Conferred Commander of the most Ancient Order of Dannebrogby by King Christian IX of Denmark 1868
85 Died at West Shandon, Dunbartonshire on 23rd June 1876

His Legacy

By the early 1850s Robert Napier's dominance of Clyde shipbuilding attracted a galaxy of able young managers and apprentices, many of whom went on to found or control their own businesses, including David Elder and his son John Elder. He was in regular contact with the leading academics Rankine, Kelvin, Scott Russell and Froude. He was a Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers and became President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

He richly earned the accolade "The Father of Clyde Shipbuilding".

More Information

Life of Robert Napier of West Shandon. J. Napier. 1904.
Beardmore: the history of a Scottish industrial giant. J.R. Hume and M.S. Moss. 1979.
David Napier, engineer, 1790-1869. D.D. Napier (ed D. Bell). 1912.
Records of the Napier family, shipbuilders and marine engineers, Glasgow. University of Glasgow Archives and Business Records Centre. Ref. GB 248 DC/090. 1800-1971
Cunard Collection University of Liverpool Library.
Ships and Shipbuilders Robert Napier pp 69-72, Fred M Walker, Seaforth, 2010
Robert Napier's Engine of PS 'Leven' is now outside the Scottish Maritime Museum Denny Tank in Dumbarton
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry (full text available to subscribers and UK library members)

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