David Elder: The father of marine engineering

By John R. Hume, published February 2020


Robert Napier is often regarded as a great engineer and the ‘father of Clyde shipbuilding’. However, most commentators do not fairly represent the contribution of his chief engineer David Elder to the establishment of the reputation and success of Clyde shipbuilding and marine engineering in the mid-nineteenth century. Elder served as Napier’s works manager for over 30 years, before being dismissed in 1852. The quality of the design and construction of the firm’s engines lay solely with Elder and this allowed the firm to build a reputation with major ship owners and the Admiralty. It is often customary to give the principal of a firm all the credit for the work of that firm, but the Napier family seem to have set out to reduce Elder’s contribution to minimal proportions. This article explores David Elder’s professional relationship with Robert Napier, and how it has been represented in publications relating to Napier. It concludes that the reputation of Robert Napier’s firm, and its ability to make successful contracts was based largely on the work of David Elder as designer of engines, boilers and machinery, and as manager of construction.

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Filed under: Nineteenth Century
Subjects include: Biography | Shipbuilding & Design

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