Elder, John

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b. 9 March 1824 Glasgow, Scotland
d. 17 September 1869 London, England
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Scottish engineer who introduced the compound steam engine to ships and established an important shipbuilding company in Glasgow.
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John was the third son of David Elder. The father came from a family of millwrights and moved to Glasgow where he worked for the well-known shipbuilding firm of Napier's and was involved with improving marine engines. John was educated at Glasgow High School and then for a while at the Department of Civil Engineering at Glasgow University, where he showed great aptitude for mathematics and drawing. He spent five years as an apprentice under Robert Napier followed by two short periods of activity as a pattern-maker first and then a draughtsman in England. He returned to Scotland in 1849 to become Chief Draughtsman to Napier, but in 1852 he left to become a partner with the Glasgow general engineering company of Randolph Elliott \& Co. Shortly after his induction (at the age of 28), the engineering firm was renamed Randolph Elder \& Co.; in 1868, when the partnership expired, it became known as John Elder \& Co. From the outset Elder, with his partner, Charles Randolph, approached mechanical (especially heat) engineering in a rigorous manner. Their knowledge and understanding of entropy ensured that engine design was not a hit-and-miss affair, but one governed by recognition of the importance of the new kinetic theory of heat and with it a proper understanding of thermodynamic principles, and by systematic development. In this Elder was joined by W.J.M. Rankine, Professor of Civil Engineering and Mechanics at Glasgow University, who helped him develop the compound marine engine. Elder and Randolph built up a series of patents, which guaranteed their company's commercial success and enabled them for a while to be the sole suppliers of compound steam reciprocating machinery. Their first such engine at sea was fitted in 1854 on the SS Brandon for the Limerick Steamship Company; the ship showed an improved performance by using a third less coal, which he was able to reduce still further on later designs.
Elder developed steam jacketing and recognized that, with higher pressures, triple-expansion types would be even more economical. In 1862 he patented a design of quadruple-expansion engine with reheat between cylinders and advocated the importance of balancing reciprocating parts. The effect of his improvements was to greatly reduce fuel consumption so that long sea voyages became an economic reality.
His yard soon reached dimensions then unequalled on the Clyde where he employed over 4,000 workers; Elder also was always interested in the social welfare of his labour force. In 1860 the engine shops were moved to the Govan Old Shipyard, and again in 1864 to the Fairfield Shipyard, about 1 mile (1.6 km) west on the south bank of the Clyde. At Fairfield, shipbuilding was commenced, and with the patents for compounding secure, much business was placed for many years by shipowners serving long-distance trades such as South America; the Pacific Steam Navigation Company took up his ideas for their ships. In later years the yard became known as the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company Ltd, but it remains today as one of Britain's most efficient shipyards and is known now as Kvaerner Govan Ltd.
In 1869, at the age of only 45, John Elder was unanimously elected President of the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland; however, before taking office and giving his eagerly awaited presidential address, he died in London from liver disease. A large multitude attended his funeral and all the engineering shops were silent as his body, which had been brought back from London to Glasgow, was carried to its resting place. In 1857 Elder had married Isabella Ure, and on his death he left her a considerable fortune, which she used generously for Govan, for Glasgow and especially the University. In 1883 she endowed the world's first Chair of Naval Architecture at the University of Glasgow, an act which was reciprocated in 1901 when the University awarded her an LLD on the occasion of its 450th anniversary.
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Principal Honours and Distinctions
President, Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland 1869.
Further Reading
Obituary, 1869, Engineer 28.
1889, The Dictionary of National Biography, London: Smith Elder \& Co. W.J.Macquorn Rankine, 1871, "Sketch of the life of John Elder" Transactions of the
Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland.
Maclehose, 1886, Memoirs and Portraits of a Hundred Glasgow Men.
The Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Works, 1909, London: Offices of Engineering.
P.M.Walker, 1984, Song of the Clyde, A History of Clyde Shipbuilding, Cambridge: PSL.
R.L.Hills, 1989, Power from Steam. A History of the Stationary Steam Engine, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (covers Elder's contribution to the development of steam engines).
RLH / FMW

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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