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David Elder

The Father Of Marine Engineering On The Clyde


David Elder was a 19th Century Millwright and Marine Engineer who has been dubbed as "the father of marine engineering on the Clyde".

He was born on the 19th January 1795 in Little Seggie, near Kinross, to Alexander Elder and Elspeth Morrison, David had four older siblings; Ann, Helen, Mary and Alexander. David's father Alexander had come from a long line of millwrights and house builders and was an Anti-Burgher elder opposed to the "Burgher Oath", as a result of his father's beliefs David was banned from attending the parish school at Orwell.

The lack of early formal education seems not to have been a great hindrance to David, As MacLehose in his 'Memoirs and portraits of one hundred Glasgow men' explains that David was self taught in mathematics and showed a genius for the subject, James R. Napier in a paper read before the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland in 1866 further states that his studies was not approved of by his father and that he went to great lengths to study Algebra. James R. Napier also explains how early in his life David used his mathematical abilities to devise a formula for calculating the weight of water in a cylinder. The practicalities of mechanics and hydraulics he studied by watching the working of old water-wheels in the local mills, this self-education would appear to have been a good foundation in the scientific and practical principles needed for the great engineering achievements that was yet to come.

In 1804 David was working in Edinburgh, his work at Charlotte Square allowed him easier access to books to continue studying, It is not known how long David was in Edinburgh or what he did there but around that time we get a first glimpse of David's desire to produce work which is rigid and reliable, James R. Napier describes how David while working on a mill was frustrated that the thread on the bolts kept stripping and vowed to himself that if ever he made nuts and bolts that the threads would not strip from the bolts. The characteristics of reliability and sturdiness was definitely prevalent in the work he later produced.

Jumbo, The Slotting Machine

David spent his formative years as an apprentice millwright under his father and in 1808 took over the running of the business, in 1812 he married Grace Gilroy in Kinross, however 2 years later in 1814 we find him in Paisley working as chief millwright and architect for the thread manufacturer J. Clark & Company, it is not known why he left Little Seggie and his father's business for the South West of Scotland. In 1817 David Elder is in Glasgow where he is superintending and designing the buildings of some of the largest factories in Scotland. These included the design and building of the Clark family's Mile-end thread works, the mill at Broomward for James Dunlop the cotton spinner, William Gillespie's Woodside Mills, Chemical Works for Charles Tennant and the Hurlet Alum Company.

In 1821 Robert Napier leased from his cousin David Napier the Camlachie foundry in the east-end of Glasgow were part of Henry Bell's Paddle Steamer 'Comet' was built. Napier needed an engine works manager and employed David Elder as such, this is undoubtedly a pivotal moment in the history of Clyde shipbuilding. James Napier in his 'Life Of Robert Napier' describes how fortunate Robert Napier was in securing employment of "a very sterling and upright man" and further goes on to describe David's work as a millwright as solid and most accurate.

David made many tools and modified many including lathes and punches, Michael Moss and John Hume in their book 'Workshop of The British Empire, Engineering and Shipbuilding in the West of Scotland' suggests that the slotting machine (see image right) in the Lancefield works was named 'Jumbo' and was almost certainly designed by David Elder this showed he was innovative and resourceful and could adapt and build tools to produce great quality engines for Robert Napier for which David received a fixed payment for each one on a per horse-power basis.

The Engines of the Leven

The Engines of the Leven (Chris Allen)

In 1822 Robert Napier procured his first contract for marine engines for the Paddle Steamer 'Leven', the design and building of the engine was undertaken by David Elder, the tools at David's disposal in the foundry were very basic and consisted of a few 10 inch and 12 inch lathes, a rudimentary horizontal boring-mill, a vertical machine, and equipment for making castings, despite this and no-doubt due to his ability to adapt tools David was still able to build a fine side-lever engine for the Leven which was to travel between Glasgow and Dumbarton, it is said that David was very proud of the engine, with good reason as many of the improvements to the marine engine were introduced by him to the Leven engine including improvements to the air-pump, condenser and slide-valve, in fact it was so good it was later installed into the Paddle Steamer 'Queen of Beauty'. Fittingly the engine is now on display at the Scottish Maritime Museum in Dumbarton.

In 1826 David Elder designed and built his first double engine, the engine was for the Paddle Steamer 'Eclipse' which sailed between Glasgow and Belfast, when starting the engines David was nearly killed and was badly scolded as water and steam rose through the hot well into the engine-room, as a result David installed features that would prevent the accident happening again, features that were widely adopted.

David Elder designed and built many of the engines for Robert Napier these included the 'New Dumbarton', 'Sultan', 'Greenock', 'Helensburgh', 'Clarence' and 'Ardincaple' and all were built to the same quality as the 'Leven', testament to this was the fact that the 'Helensburgh' and the 'Clarence' finished first and second in a steamboat race organised by the Northern Yacht Club at their August Regatta in 1827.

MacLehose explains how David preferred to employ Cartwrights or House-joiners over Millwrights as they could produce closer fitting joints and as a result better quality engines. The engines David designed were renowned for their strength, solidity, efficiency and endurance and Robert Napier soon found that his reputation and order books were growing.

Robert Napier's business had now outgrown the small Camlachie foundry and in 1828 he acquired the Vulcan Foundry in Washington Street. In 1835 Robert procured an important contract with the East India Company to build the engines for the 'Bernice' an ocean going paddle steamer, it was on the 'Bernice' that David Elder was the first to install expansion valves that made the engines far more efficient this improvement was tested when the 'Bernice' on her maiden voyage to India beat her sister ship the 'Atlanta' there by 18 days. The business continued to grow and in 1836 Robert Napier leased the Lancefield Foundry and Docks from his cousin David Napier subsequently buying it in 1841.

In 1838 Robert Napier was contracted by the Admiralty to build engines for HMS 'Vesuvius' and HMS 'Stromboli' at this point the Admiralty had been reluctant to build their ships anywhere else except on the Thames, despite the building of the engines of 'Vesuvius' and 'Stromboli the Admiralty decided to continue to favour the English builders and Napier received no more orders, until however when in 1843 after a Parliamentary Question the government ordered a return for the cost of repairs of a number of steamers including 'Vesuvius' and 'Stromboli, after comparisons where made it was clear that the engines built by David Elder were far more reliable, efficient and economical than their English counterparts, this once again showed the superior quality of David Elder's work, later that year the Admiralty placed an order for three ships; HMS 'Jackal', HMS 'Lizard' and HMS 'Bloodhound'.

In 1839 another pivotal moment in the history of Clyde shipbuilding and indeed transatlantic steam travel occurs when Samuel Cunard chooses Robert Napier to build the engines for his first transatlantic steamer for the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Co. which Robert Napier invested in. The 'British Queen' had her engines designed and built by David Elder who incorporated into the engine Samuel Hall’s patent surface condenser. David also took great care in construction and instruction on the use of solid fixings to the wooden hull boasting that if the ship was to have the misfortune to break up that the engine would still be securely fastened. Napier and in effect David Elder was to build many transatlantic ships for the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Co. which later became known as the Cunard Line.

In 1841 we find David living with his family at Anderston Quay near the Lancefield Foundry and up to this point all the engines designed by David Elder where installed in wooden hulled ships mostly built by James Wood at Port Glasgow, however Robert Napier desired to expand into iron shipbuilding and in 1842 acquired a yard at Govan for this purpose and in June 1843 his first ship the Paddle Steamer 'Vanguard' was launched from the "Old Yard" as it later became known. The 1000 horse-power 'Vanguard' was one of the earliest iron ships and was built for the Dublin and Glasgow Steam Packet Company. At the Old Yard Napier also built ships for the Admiralty including the Iron Paddle Gunships mentioned earlier; HMS 'Jackal', HMS 'Lizard' and HMS 'Bloodhound'. The HMS 'Simoon', launched from the Old Yard in 1849 was one of the first iron steam frigates laid down although she was completed and launched as a Troopship.

It is not known for certain what engines David Elder designed and built on the ships launched at the old yard in Govan, however we know he was also involved in the design and building of the iron hulls there, James R. Napier describes how David Elder pays particular attention to the keel plates of the 'Vanguard' and drilling holes instead of punching them in critical parts of the hull and using cold rivets. This cautiousness in ensuring the hull was robust shows that the characteristics of reliability and sturdiness that were prevalent in his engines and boilers were also applied to the iron hull of the 'Vanguard'.

In 1851 we find David Elder living at Paterson Street in Tradeston near Govan, perhaps an indication of his involvement at the Govan yard. Living with David is his wife Grace and three sons; David Elder his oldest son is an engineer at this time employing 60 men, John Elder also an engineer had apprenticed under his father and was at the time chief draughtsman at Napier's yard and Alexander Elder who at this time in 1851 was an apprentice engineer, possibly under his father, Alexander went on to be one of the founders of the Elder Dempster Line.

It cannot be ascertained exactly when David Elder retired from Robert Napier & Co., however it is believed that it may be around 1852, when Robert Napier brought his sons into the partnership and retired to his home in Shandon, James R. Napier states in 1866 that "..some years ago, he [David Elder] ceased to be actively employed by the new firm of R. Napier & Sons,". Another reason is that David's son John Elder may also have been dismissed by the company in August 1852.

David Elder died at Paterson Street in Tradeston on the 31st January 1866 his obituary in the journal 'The Artizan' dated 1st March 1866 describes him as very hard headed yet humorous and genial and was tolerant to others, David also had an interest in architecture and music having built several organs including one for Robert Napier and one for his son Alexander.

Robert Napier has been justifiably labelled as the "The Father Of Clyde Shipbuilding", this accolade in part is due to the number of great shipbuilders that have started their great shipbuilding careers at Napier's workshops and yards, however it is more than fair to say that Napier may not be held in such high esteem without David Elder, David's obituary in 'The Artizan' describes him as the "real moving spirit" and that the reputation and high esteem that Napier has is due to David Elder. It further goes on to say "For strength, solidity, efficiency and endurance, his [napier] engines were from the first, unrivalled, either in Scotland or anywhere else, and whatever excellencies they possessed it was confessedly to Mr Elder that they were wholly impute."

James R. Napier in a paper read before the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland, in 1866 stated "The history of so remarkable a man must be interesting to many on account of his connection with works which have made Glasgow and the Clyde famous, and given to his employer a fame which is known over the engineering world." This is all the more poignant as the author James R. Napier is the son of Robert Napier.

It would seem the title "The Father Of Marine Engineering On The Clyde" bestowed on David is fitting and justifiable, this is at the least evident in the quality of his engines and the care he took in their design and construction, they were renowned for their robustness, efficiency and endurance, it also fair to say he was a pioneer in engine and boiler design introducing many improvements and played a pivotal part in early transatlantic steam travel. David also left a great legacy of quality engine building, he was to see his son John Elder invent the highly successful compound engine, furthermore on the year David Elder died in 1866 his son John was fitting out a shipbuilding yard he founded 2 years earlier this yard the "Fairfield Yard" was to become one of the greatest shipbuilding yards in the world and is of 2012 one of the few working yards left on the Clyde.


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Sources & References

  • "The Official Illustrated Guide To The North-Eastern;....", p303, George Meason, 1864
  • "Memoir of The Late Mr. David Elder, Engineer", James R. Napier in 'Engineering', p256, April 6 1866
  • 'The Scotsman', p3, Feb 1 1866
  • "Mr Robert Napier, Shipbuilder & Engineer", 'Engineering', p597, Dec 27 1867
  • "Memoirs And Portraits Of One Hundred Glasgow Men", p116-122 & p242-244, James MacLehose, 1885
  • "The History of Govan", T. C. F. Brotchie, 1905
  • "Robert Napier, The Father of Clyde Shipbuilding", Brian D. Osborne, 1991
  • 1851 & 1861 Census, Scotland
  • "Death of Mr. David Elder" in 'The Artizan', p65, March 1 1866
  • "The Late Mr. David Elder, Engineer", James R. Napier in 'The Civil Engineer and Architect Journal', May 1 1866
  • "The Late David Elder, Snr.", in 'The Scotsman', p2, Feb 9 1866
  • "A Memoir Of John Elder, Engineer and Shipbuilder" W. J. Macquorn Rankine, 1871
  • "Life of Robert Napier of West Shandon", James Napier, 1904
  • "Workshop of The British Empire, Engineering and Shipbuilding ..", Michael Moss and John Hume, 1977
  • Parish Registers for Kinross, 1676-1859, Church of Scotland

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