ON this date in 1876 the death occurred of one of Scotland’s greatest engineers and innovators; Robert Napier, known as the Father of Clyde Shipbuilding.

No single person can really own that title, but Napier has as good a claim as anyone, given his monumental achievements in the field of marine engineering and the businesses he established on the Clyde.

Born in Dumbarton on June 21, 1791, Napier was the son of James and Jean Napier. The family were long established blacksmiths and ironworkers but James Napier had a higher career planned for his son, who was educated at Dumbarton Academy.

Robert was encouraged to think of a vocation as a Church of Scotland minister, but the teenager was already fascinated by machines and art – he was a very skilled draughtsman from a young age.

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Partly to avoid Robert being press-ganged into the Royal Navy – a common fate for young men and boys in Scotland at that time – James Napier took on his son as his apprentice, which meant the press gangs had to leave him alone. Robert served his time but then took himself off to Edinburgh to learn civil and mechanical engineering at the works of the Stevenson family, famed as builders of lighthouses.

Robert Stevenson, grandfather of the author Robert Louis Stevenson, appears to have taken Napier under his wing and Robert prospered, so much so that in 1814 Napier was able to return to Glasgow to work for William Lang, a shipmaster.

In 1815, at the age of just 24, Napier was able to start his own smithy in Glasgow, though he always saw it as much more than a blacksmith’s forge.

On August 25, 1815 he joined Glasgow’s Incorporation of Hammermen, the guild which regulated metalworkers in the broadest sense in the city and which Napier did so much to promote that it became the shipbuilders’ guild – it is still going, although it is much more of a charitable institution today.

Napier married his cousin Isabella Napier in 1818 and they would have a long and happy marriage. By 1821 he had his own engineering works at Camlachie Foundry, leased to him by his shipbuilder cousin David, where he began making engines for mills and ships, and pipes for the Glasgow water supply. Two years later came his great breakthrough when he designed and built an engine for the paddle steamer Leven which was being constructed at Dumbarton by James Lang.

This Leven engine far outstripped any other ship engine of the day, and proved remarkedly long-lived, much more so than the ships it powered. Napier’s engine can be seen to this day outside the Scottish Maritime Museum’s premises in Dumbarton.

Another breakthrough came with the Northern Yacht Club’s August regatta in 1827. By far the two fastest boats were the Clarence and the Helensburgh, both of them powered by Napier engines. Orders poured in and Napier opened the Vulcan Foundry, enabling him to design and build engines for ocean-going ships.

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The Clyde still suffered from the Thames-centric attitudes of the shipping lines, but in 1835 David Napier was commissioned to build a ship, the Berenice, for the East India Trading Company. Robert built her engine, and when the Berenice beat her sister ship, the Thames-built Atalanta, to India by 18 days, no one could now deny the superiority of the Clyde-built ships.

In 1838, Robert Napier won the Admiralty contract to provide engines for the Royal Navy, and a year later he set up the British and North American Steam-Packet Company with Samuel Cunard.

Napier’s role was to build the four steamers which gave the firm its reputation for speed – the company would later become Cunard and build the famous Queens at Clydebank. The Cunard line still has the black and red colours that Napier gave those early ships.

Napier was a visionary and saw that iron-hulled ships were the future, so in 1841 he established his own shipbuilding yard at Govan to build iron ships. It was soon turning out capital ships for the Royal Navy and from 1848, after he acquired the Parkhead Forge, Napier could look to build even bigger ships – the RMS Persia, built for the Cunard company, was the biggest ship in the world when it was a launched in 1855.

Napier took his sons James and John into the business and at various times he also employed some of the best-known names in Clyde shipbuilding such as William Denny of Dumbarton and John Elder of Fairfield fame and the Thomson brothers whose firm would later become John Brown’s of Clydebank.

Having moved to a magnificent house in Shandon near Helensburgh, Napier indulged his taste for fine art and filled his home with works that today would be worth many millions.

Competition on the Clyde saw the Napier company in difficulties, however, and the financial problems may have cost Napier the knighthood he deserved, though he did receive awards from the kings of France and Denmark, among other countries.

He retired from the company in 1871 and suffered the loss of his beloved wife four years later.

Robert Napier died at Shandon on June 23, 1876, two days after his 85th birthday. Some 1400 workers from his firm accompanied the funeral cortege.

There is just one Robert Napier-built ship afloat anywhere in the world, the Buffel. Restored to its original condition by the maritime museum in Rotterdam it reminds us that, with Robert Napier at the helm, the Clyde really did lead the world in shipbuilding.