Robert Napier lived from 21 June 1791 to 23 June 1876. He was an engineer often remembered as"The Father of Clyde Shipbuilding." The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Robert Napier was born in Dumbarton, into a family with an established tradition as engineers and blacksmiths. He was educated locally and despite his father's hopes that he might become a minister in the Church of Scotland, he decided he wanted to go into the family business. His father then took him on as an apprentice, partly at least in order to allow him exemption from the activities of the Royal Navy press gangs who plagued Dumbarton at the time. After five years working for his father, Robert moved to Edinburgh to work for Robert Stevenson, the famous civil engineer and lighthouse designer and builder.
In 1815 Napier established his own business in Glasgow and almost immediately became a Burgess of Glasgow and a member of the Incorporation of Hammermen, the organisation which regulated Glasgow's engineering trades. In 1818 he married his cousin, Isabella Napier.
Napier's business took off after he built a successful steam engine for the steamer, Leven, in 1825. In 1827, he achieved fame by building the engines of both of the two fastest ships to compete in the Northern Yacht Club's August Regatta. The following year he built the Vulcan Foundry in Glasgow. Napier subsequently moved from building engines for small vessels to engines for ocean going ships. In 1835 he was awarded a contract by the East India Trading Company to build an engine for their ship, Berenice. Her sister ship Atlanta used an engine built by a rival. On their maiden voyages, Berenice using Napier's engine, beat Atlanta by 18 days.
In 1838, a Parliamentary Enquiry established that Napier's engines were more reliable and cheaper than those being procured by the Royal Navy at the time: and he immediately became their main supplier. He achieved a still greater success in the same year when, together with Canadian shipping magnate Samuel Cunard and businessmen James Donaldson, Sir George Burns and David MacIver, he founded the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, which is better known by its later name of Cunard Steamships Ltd. Napier's role in the partnership was to build the ships for the new Company's fleet. In 1841, Napier opened a new shipyard designed especially to build iron ships at Govan on the River Clyde, managed by William Denny, who left the following year to establish his own shipbuilding yard.
In 1855, Napier was made a Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur by Napoleon III, and in 1868 he was also honoured by King Christian IX of Denmark. Meanwhile he served as President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1863, and as Royal Commissioner of the 1867 Paris Exhibition. He also retained a lifelong interest in the arts, building a large home at Shandon on Gare Loch especially to display his wide ranging collection. Robert Napier died in 1867, the year after his wife.