Facts not Opinions

Motto above the entrance to the Kirkaldy Testing Works

David Kirkaldy

1820 – 1897

David Kirkaldy

Mechanical and materials engineer who established the world’s first independent commercial materials testing laboratory

Engineering Achievements

The Kirkaldy Testing Works served Britain and the world from 1874 to 1965. He was a pioneer in the field of quality control and failure analysis, through rigorous and accurate testing of materials. His mantra was ‘Facts Not Opinions’, which can still be seen inscribed above the door at 99 Southwark Street.

Kirkaldy resigned from Robert Napier’s Vulcan foundry in Glasgow to design his Universal Testing Machine, at his own cost. The machine was built by Greenwood & Batley of Leeds and installed at The Grove, Southwark, London in 1865. Later, a purpose-built Testing & Experimenting Works was designed specifically to house the Universal Testing Machine, which is 47 feet 7 inches long, weighs some 116 tons, and was designed to work horizontally, the load applied by a hydraulic cylinder and ram. The Testing Works at 99 Southwark Street, London was opened in 1874. 

Manufacturers sent materials from all over the world. Early clients were Alfred Krupp of Germany, Borsig of Belgium, The Belgian Royal Gun Factory of Liege and Westenfors and Fagersta of Sweden. Specific engineering commissions include the testing of parts for James Eads’ 1867 St Louis Bridge over the Mississippi River and for Indian railways. He was also asked to perform tests on elements of the failed Tay Bridge in 1880 and was able to give insights into possible causes for the disaster. 

The Testing Works had the ability to test a wide variety of material types and forms, and a key part of the business was testing and certifying the safety of the mooring chains used across the London docks.

His Life

  1. 1820 born on 4 April 1820 in Mayfield, Dundee to William Kirkaldy, merchant and shipper, and Susannah Davidson
  2. c 1830-40 Age: 10-20 educated under Dr Low, then Merchiston School, Edinburgh, attending lectures at University of Edinburgh
  3. 1843 Age: 23 belated apprenticeship in Robert Napier's Vulcan Foundry, Glasgow
  4. c 1848 Age: 28 appointed Chief Draughtsman and Calculator
  5. 1857 Age: 37 helped form the Institution of Engineers in Scotland
  6. 1858 Age: 38 married Annamelia Yates Miller
  7. 1858-61 Age: 38-41 testing programme on wrought iron and steel
  8. 1861 Age: 41 his sectional drawing of RMS Persia exhibited at Royal Academy Summer Exhibition
  9. 1861-3 Age: 41-43 resigned from Napier's and designed the Universal Testing Machine from home (Corunna Street, Glasgow) at his own expense
  10. 1862 Age: 42 published "Experiments of Wrought-Iron and Steel"
  11. 1863 Age: 43 patented the Universal Testing Machine
  12. 1864-5 Age: 44-45 machine built by Greenwood and Batley, Leeds and installed at The Grove, Southwark
  13. 1866 Age: 45 Kirkaldy Testing Works opened on 1 January
  14. 1866 Age: 46 Joseph Cubitt engaged Kirkaldy to test materials for Blackfriars Bridge
  15. 1869 Age: 49 tested materials for the Eads Bridge, St Louis, USA for J B Eads
  16. 1874 Age: 54 bespoke building built and UTM relocated to 99 Southwark Street, London
  17. 1880 Age: 60 tested girders recovered after collapse of Bouch's Tay Bridge.
  18. 1885 Age: 65 elected Associate (equivalent of member today) of the Institution of Civil Engineers
  19. 1888 Age: 68 Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Turners
  20. 1897 Age: 76 died of heart disease on 25 January at home, 45 Carleton Road, Islington; buried in Highgate Cemetery


The Testing Works was run by three generations of the Kirkaldy family: David’s son, William, developed an impact testing machine and was closely involved in the establishment of the National Physical Laboratory.

The Kirkaldy Testing Works at 99 Southwark Street, London is now a working museum run by volunteers, open to the public for tours, educational visits and events. Kirkaldy’s Universal Testing Machine and several other historical testing machines are maintained in operating condition and can be seen working by visitors. Both the building and the machine are Grade 2* Listed.

Kirkaldy is widely recognized as a key figure in the establishment of structural materials testing as both a scientific and an engineering discipline. He also pioneered the technique of polishing and etching metallic specimens to enable their structures and phases to be observed using optical microscopy. 

His obituary in the Engineer said, memorably: "Cautious to a degree; enthusiastic past belief; honest as the sun; outspoken and fearless as a Viking, he laboured in a field previously untilled … Kirkaldy was the terror of so many persons, that it is probable that at one time he was the best hated man in London."

His machine was used to test materials in the de Havilland Comet crash investigations and materials used in iconic structures such as Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Festival of Britain Skylon.

More Information

Transactions of the Institution of Engineers in Scotland, 4, 171 [report of meeting held on 4 Sept 1861]

David Kirkaldy: An Experimental Inquiry into the Tensile Strength and other properties of various kinds of Wrought-Iron and Steel. London (1862)

Obituary: The Engineer (5 Feb 1897), 147

Denis Smith: David Kirkaldy (1820-1897) and engineering Materials Testing, Transactions of the Newcomen Society 53,1 (1980)

Alan Butcher: David Kirkaldy and 99 Southwark Street. Panel for Historical Engineering Works Newsletter No. 23. Institution of Civil Engineers (Aug 1984) p1. 

Frances Robertson, David Kirkaldy (1820-1897) and his museum of destruction: the visual dilemmas of an engineer as man of science. Endeavour, 37,3 (2013) 125-132.

Biography in ODNB by Denis Smith: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/45647 (free to UK library subscribers)

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