John Elder, marine engineer and shipbuilder, died on the 17th of September, 1869.
John Elder wasn’t his father’s eldest son, but that didn’t stop him becoming the most famous. From a family tradition going back some generations, the elder Elder took that kindred expertise as wood wrights into the shipbuilding industry and to working with iron. As a shipwright, John Elder’s father was responsible for several inventions and improvements to the machinery of steam vessels. The younger Elder was undoubtedly his father’s son and followed a similar, but far more successful path, of inventing and shipbuilding. John Elder also followed his father into the employ of another father; James Robert Napier, the ‘father’ of Clydeside shipbuilding. A man who was unlikely to have been a father, the lifelong bachelor, William John Macquorn Rankine, Regius Professor of Civil Engineering and Mechanics at Glasgow University, once described John Elder as an engineer of singular genius. That intellect enabled Elder to make loads of improvements in the field of marine engines, for which we should be grateful.
Elder’s greatest achievement and that which made him famous was the invention, in 1854, of the compound steam marine engine (combined high and low pressure engines). The great thing about Elder’s development was that, by recycling and using the same steam twice, it resulted in far greater fuel efficiency. A fuel saving of the order of thirty or forty percent was achieved and, through using less coal, Elder’s engine enabled longer voyages with increased cargoes. In effect, Elder’s marine engine had a phenomenal impact in opening up the shipping trade. He went on to make further improvements and refinements in fuel consumption, reductions in friction and increases in power output. Not content with that, Elder continued experimenting with the development of triple and quadruple expansion engines, which ultimately had a profound influence on marine engine design.
In terms of industrial relations and as an employer, Elder was also a bit of an innovator. He was decidedly progressive and ahead of his time in being concerned with the welfare of his workers, and became involved in schemes for their social, intellectual, and religious welfare, including contributing to a sick fund. He had contemplated the building of schools and tied houses for his workforce, but his untimely death put paid to those ideas. After Elder’s firm moved to the Fairfield Shipyard in Govan, the reputation it gained as one of the world’s leading shipbuilding and marine engineering firms, helped to put ‘Fairfields’ and the expression ‘Clyde-built’ into the public consciousness.
John Elder was born in Glasgow on the 8th of March, 1824. During his formative years, wee Johnnie was educated at Glasgow’s High School, where he studied mathematics and technical drawing. He is also supposed to have attended classes at the University of Glasgow, but in any case, he was later apprenticed to the aforementioned Robert Napier, where he learned his trade, including a spell abroad; down south in an English engine works. Back in Glasgow and at the end of a five year apprenticeship, Elder was made Head of the Drawing Office in Napier’s engineering works.
In 1852, Elder became a partner of Charles Randolph, with his expertise helping Randolph’s firm of millwrights to diversify into marine engineering. From Randolph & Elliott of Tradeston, the new partnership formed Randolph, Elder & Co., and in 1858, with the business thriving, acquired a shipbuilding yard in Govan. The first ship was built in 1861 and two years after that, the firm moved to the Fairfield Shipyard on the site of the former Fairfield farm at Govan on the Clyde, where Randolph and Elder employed up to 4,000 men. Five years after that, in 1868, when the partnership expired, Elder became sole partner and his firm went from strength to strength as the saying goes. Later, by 1886, some years after his death, Elder’s very successful legacy had grown into what was then renamed the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company; owned by Sir William Pearce.
John Elder died of liver disease on the 17th of September, 1869, after an illness lasting several months. Elder died in London, where he had gone to get the best medical advice, but that availed him not. He might have been cheered up at the time by the news of his having been unanimously elected as President of the Institute of Engineers and Ship Builders in Scotland. However, Elder died before he was able to attend his presentation. Elder’s election for session 1869-70 was a great honour as his notable predecessors included both Rankine and Napier. Rankine was re-elected for a second term to replace poor Elder. After his death, the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company was renamed John Elder & Co in his memory.
Also in his memory and to perpetuate his name and legacy, the Chair of Naval Architecture at the University of Glasgow is named for John Elder. His widow, Isabella, was the benefactor who endowed the professorship and she was also responsible for the creation of Elder Park in Glasgow, as a monument to her shipbuilder husband. Elder’s wife bought 37 acres of land opposite Fairfield’s shipyard and had it laid out as a public park. The park opened in 1885 to give the people of Govan a “healthful recreation by music and amusement.” A statue of John Elder stands in the park, beside one of the compound engines that underpinned Fairfield’s success. Fittingly, the park also boasts a statue of Mrs. Elder, who appears to have been quite a character in her own right.