Napier, Robert (1791-1876) (DNB00)

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NAPIER, ROBERT (1791–1876), marine engineer, born at Dumbarton on 18 June 1791, was the son of a well-to-do blacksmith and burgess of that town. After receiving a good general education at the Dumbarton grammar school, and acquiring considerable skill in mathematical and architectural drawing under the instruction of a friend of his father, named Traill, who was connected with Messrs. Dixon's works, Napier was in 1807, at his own request, apprenticed to his father for five years. He occupied his spare time in making small tools, drawing-instruments, guns, and gun-locks, and executed the smith's work for Messrs. Stirling's extensive calico-printing works. At the end of his apprenticeship in 1812 Napier went to Edinburgh, where, after precarious employment at low wages, he obtained a post in Robert Stevenson's works. A blunder in his first attempt to construct the boiler of a steam-engine led to Napier's return to his father, and in 1815 he purchased a small blacksmith's business in Greyfriars' Wynd, Glasgow. He succeeded so well as to be able to remove his business to the Camlachie works in Gallowgate, which had been previously occupied by his cousin, David Napier [q. v.] Here he engaged in ironfounding and engineering, and in 1823 constructed his first marine engine for the steamship Leven, which was to ply between Glasgow and Dumbarton. In 1826 he constructed the engines for the Eclipse, for the Glasgow and Belfast route; and in 1827, in a steamboat race on the Clyde, two vessels with engines provided by Napier proved the fastest. The following year Napier took over more extensive works at the Vulcan foundry in Washington Street, near the harbour, the deepening of which enabled vessels of larger size to be built, and provided with engines at Glasgow. In 1830 he joined the Glasgow Steam-packet Company, and supplied the engines for most of its vessels running between Glasgow and Liverpool. Three years later he was consulted as to the practicability of running steamships between England and New York; his report was favourable, but the project was abandoned for lack of funds. In 1834 Napier engined three steam-packets to ply between London and Dundee, and in the following year succeeded his cousin David at the Lancefield foundry on Anderston Quay.

In 1836 Napier supplied engines of 230 horse-power for the East India Company's vessel Berenice, and soon after engines of 280 horse-power for the same company's Zenobia (drawings of the Berenice are given on plates xcv. and xcvi. in Tredgold, The Steam Engine, ed. Woolhouse). In 1839 he engined the British Queen, which was to run between England and New York, and the Fire King, a steam yacht belonging to Mr. Assheton Smith, which proved the fastest vessel then afloat. In 1840 he became member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and executed his first commission for the government by supplying engines for the Vesuvius and the Stromboli. About the same time he contracted to supply Samuel Cunard with engines of 300 horse-power for three vessels of 1,000 tons, to carry mails to North America. Convinced that these were not large enough, Napier induced Cunard to order four vessels of 1,200 tons and 400 horse-power; and, to meet the expense, others were induced to join in the contract. This was the origin of the Cunard Company; and for fifteen years Napier engined all their paddle-wheel ships.

Hitherto Napier had confined himself to constructing engines, but in 1841 he opened his shipbuilding yard at Govan, and in 1843 he built his first ship, the Vanguard, of 680 tons, for the Glasgow and Dublin route. In 1850 he began constructing iron ships, his first being one for the Peninsular and Oriental Company in 1852; in 1851 he was a juror at the Great Exhibition, London. In 1854 he built for the Cunard Company the Persia, of 3,300 tons; in 1855 he was a juror at the Paris exhibition, and received the gold medal and decoration of knight of the Legion of Honour from Napoleon III. In 1856 he constructed for the government the Erebus, and in 1860 the Black Prince, of 6,040 tons, one of the two armour-clad vessels first built; and from this time onwards built more than three hundred vessels for the government and great companies, first paddle-wheel, and then screw steamers. Among them was the troopship Malabar, the Scotia for the Cunard Company, the Hector, Agitator, Audacious, and Invincible. He also built men-of-war for the French, Turkish, Danish, and Dutch governments.

In 1862 Napier was chairman of the jury on naval architecture at the London international exhibition; from 1863 to 1865 he was president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, of which he had become a member in 1856. In 1866 he took out two patents—one for a new method of constructing the upper deck of ships of war, the other for an improved method of constructing turrets. In 1867 he was royal commissioner at the Paris exhibition, and in 1868 the king of Denmark conferred on him the commandership of the most ancient order of Dannebrog. Napier died at West Shandon, Glasgow, on 23 June 1876, and his valuable collection of works of art was sold by Messrs. Christie.

He married in 1816 the sister of his cousin David, and by her, who died in 1875, he had three daughters and four sons, two of whom died young. The other two, James Robert and John, were taken into partnership in 1853. An engraving of Napier is given in ‘Engineering,’ iv. 594, and another in ‘The Clyde,’ &c., p. 209.

[Engineering, 1867, pp. 594–7; 1876, pp. 554–555; Proc. Inst. Civil Engineers, xlv. 246–51; Proc. Inst. Mechanical Engineers, 1877, pp. 3, 20–1; Scotsman and Times, 24 June 1876; Imperial Dict. of Biography; English Cyclopædia; Men of the Time, 9th edit.; Men of the Reign; Griffin's Contemporary Biography in Brit. Mus. Add. MS. 28511; Armstrong's British Navy; Pollock's Modern Shipbuilding; Woodcroft's Abridgments of Specifications for Patents (Shipbuilding, &c.), pp. 613, 687.]

A. F. P.