Alexander Carnegie Kirk

1830 – 1892

Alexander Carnegie Kirk

Engineer with pioneering developments in distillation of paraffin, refrigeration, and the triple expansion steam engine

Engineering Achievements

Alexander Carnegie Kirk’s three major contributions – improvements in the distillation of paraffin from shale oil, the air cycle refrigeration system and the triple expansion steam engine would each qualify him for entry to the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame. The fact that he is responsible for all three of them indicates the esteem in which he should be held – as Robert Dundas, the President of IESIS, said in announcing his death in 1892, “In him we have lost one of our ablest members”

Kirk was a graduate of the University of Edinburgh. He was apprenticed in Robert Napier & sons, and later worked at James “Paraffin” Young’s shale oil works where he improved the distillation process, and also John Elder & Co’s marine engines, all of them inductees to the Scottish engineering Hall of Fame.

He served as President of IESIS from 1887-89 and was a member of the Glasgow Hammermen.

Alexander Kirk developed an air cycle refrigeration machine based on the Stirling engine which was significantly more reliable and efficient than previous designs and served as the archetype for this type of machine for the next 20 years. It paved the way for the establishment of the frozen meat trade from Australia, New Zealand and South America. His triple expansion steam engine in 1874 – the first of this type of engine in the world - reduced coal consumption for marine engines by 25% and rapidly superseded the compound steam engine. 

His Life

  1. 1830 Born on 16 July in the manse at Barry, Forfarshire to John Kirk and Christian Carnegie
  2. c 1840-45 Age: 10-15 educated at Arbroath Burgh Academy
  3. 1845 Age: 15 studied for an Arts degree at the University of Edinburgh, taking evening classes at Leith Mechanics' Institute
  4. 1850 Age: 20 Apprenticed at Robert Napier & Sons Vulcan Foundry, Glasgow
  5. 1856 Age: 26 Invented a refrigeration device for chilling brine
  6. 1861 Age: 31 Became Chief Draughtsman with Maudslay, Sons and Field, London
  7. 1861 Age: 31 Became engineering manager for James Young's shale oil business, Bathgate - developed oil shale retort and refrigeration technology
  8. 1865 Age: 35 Joined the management of James Aitken and Company engine works, Glasgow
  9. 1869 Age: 39 married Ada Waller in Croydon
  10. 1871 Age: 41 Engine works manager for Randolph Elder & Co., Glasgow
  11. 1874 Age: 44 demonstrated the principle of the triple-expansion engine on SS Propontis
  12. 1877 Age: 47 Senior partner at Robert Napier & Sons, where he perfected the triple-expansion compound engine
  13. 1883 Age: 53 sold compound engines of around 12,000 ihp (indicated horse power) to the imperial Russian navy
  14. 1885 Age: 55 SS Galatea for the British Admiralty performs above expectations in trials with its compound engines
  15. 1887-9 Age: 57-59 President of IESIS
  16. 1888 Age: 58 Vice President, Institution of Naval Architects
  17. 1892 Age: 62 Died on 5 October at 19 Athole Gardens, Kelvinside, Glasgow,


"Kirk's engineering skills made an enormous impact both on marine engine design for ocean-going vessels and on processing equipment for the shale-oil extraction industry, especially his refrigerator invention. His range of expertise spanned thermodynamics, mineralogy, chemistry, metallurgy, hydrodynamics, and mechanical engineering. The combination of inventive skill and management expertise gained him an enviable reputation that extended far beyond the confines of his native Scotland." ODNB

More Information

Alexander Carnegie Kirk. LLD, FRSE, Naval Engineer. in Eminent Arbroathians. JM McBain, Brodie and Salmond, Arbroath, 1897

Entry in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography by John Mavor (free to UK library subscribers)

Cite Top