R.M.S. Persia. The world's largest and fastest ship when launched in 1855.

R.M.S. Persia. The world's largest ship when launched in 1855, drawn by David Kirkaldy, 1856

Robert Napier

1791 – 1876

Robert Napier

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

  1. 1791 Born in Dumbarton, Scotland on 18th June
  2. 1812 Age: 21 Completed apprenticeship in his father's works
  3. 1812 Age: 21 Assistant to Robert Stevenson, lighthouse builder
  4. 1814 Age: 23 Assistant to William Lang, Glasgow
  5. 1815 Age: 24 Set up in business as a smith
  6. 1815 Age: 24 Admitted to the Incorporation of the Hammermen of Glasgow
  7. 1818 Age: 27 Married his cousin Isabella Napier
  8. 1821 Age: 30 Took over the Camlachie Works, Glasgow, from David Napier
  9. 1823 Age: 32 Won order for paddle steamer Leven from James Lang
  10. 1827 Age: 36 Promoted skill as an engine builder in London
  11. 1827 Age: 36 Two fastest steamers in Northern yacht club regatta have Robert Napier designed engines
  12. 1828 Age: 37 Purchases Camlachie Works and Vulcan Foundry in Glasgow
  13. 1830 Age: 39 Hands over Camlachie works to his brother. Re-equips Vulcan Foundry to build large marine engines
  14. 1835 Age: 44 Leases Lancefield works, Glasgow from his cousin David Napier
  15. 1837 Age: 46 Berenice beats Atalanta to India by 18 days on maiden voyage
  16. 1839 Age: 48 British and North American Steam-Packet Company established with Samuel Cunard
  17. 1841 Age: 50 Purchases Lancefield works
  18. 1842 Age: 51 Begins building iron-hulled ships at Govan
  19. 1848 Age: 57 Takes over Parkhead Forge, Glasgow
  20. 1849 Age: 58 Leviathan train ferry launched
  21. 1852 Age: 61 Moves permanently to West Shandon, Gareloch
  22. 1855 Age: 64 Launch of the first Cunard ship RMS Persia, which took the Blue Riband for the fastest sea crossing of the Atlantic in July 1856, a record she held until 1862.
  23. 1856 Age: 65 HMS Erebus, the Royal Navy's first iron-clad vessel, launched
  24. 1861 Age: 70 HMS Black Prince, largest ship then built on the Clyde, launched
  25. 1863 Age: 72 Elected President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers
  26. 1868 Age: 77 Conferred Commander of the most Ancient Order of Dannebrogby by King Christian IX of Denmark
  27. 1876 Age: 85 Died at West Shandon, Dunbartonshire on 23rd June

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, his son John Elder, Alexander Kirk, and David Kirkaldy. He was in regular contact with the leading academics Rankine, Kelvin, John 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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