Robert Napier

Robert Napier / Engineers

  • Name  : Napier
  • Born  : 1791
  • Died  : 1876
  • Category  : Engineers
  • Finest Moment : The launch of his first ship, the appropriately named Vanguard, in 1843

Robert Napier was born in Dumbarton, in 1791. He was a cousin of David Napier, a marine engineer who had built the boilers and engine castings for Henry Bell's Comet. Robert initially trained as a smith, and in 1821 he leased the Camlachie Foundry from his cousin and began to make land engines.

He moved into marine engines in 1823, when he built the engine for the PS Leven. This is preserved outside the Denny Test Tank in Dumbarton. Four years later he acquired the Vulcan Foundry, moving to the Lancefield Foundry in 1836 after his cousin had left for London. Just before that, together with his cousin he had designed a number of innovative marine engines, including the side lever steeple engine in 1835.

In 1840, Napier built the engines for the first four Cunard liners. Expanding his horizons, Napier opened his own shipyard for building iron ships in 1841, on the other side of the Clyde from Lancefield, at Govan. He launched his first ship, the Vanguard, in 1843. All along, Napier had not only been a clever designer, he had been a very sharp businessman. When Samuel Cunard established his Royal Mail Steam Navigation Company in 1839, for example, Napier had taken a shareholding in the venture, thereby securing the orders for their first four ships.

He had also built some ships at a deliberate loss, in order to gain further orders when the success of the first ships were recognised. At first, iron ships were regarded with great suspicion by both Lloyd's, who insured them, and the Admiralty. Just like low energy light bulbs in the distant future, they cost more to buy, but had significantly lower running costs.

By the 1860s, Napier had succeeded in gaining a firm hold in nearly all passenger markets, building ships for an international market. He also trained many who would go on to continue the reputation of the Clyde shipbuilding and marine engineering industries. He retired in 1860, and enjoyed a well-earned retirement for the next 16 years, dying in 1876.

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