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Alexander Carnegie Kirk

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Alexander Carnegie Kirk (1830–1892), mechanical engineer and inventor

1830 Born on 16 July, the eldest son of John Kirk, minister of Barry, and his wife, Christian Guthrie, née Carnegie (d. 1865).

Educated at Arbroath Burgh Academy, and Edinburgh University from 1845, and evenings at Leith Mechanics' Institute.

1850 Kirk began a five-year apprenticeship at the Vulcan foundry of Robert Napier.

1854 Appointed chief draughtsman at Maudslay, Sons and Field London

1861 Engineering manager in the new shale-oil industry working for James ‘Paraffin’ Young, where he remained for five years.

Kirk improved a vertical type of retort, first patented in 1839. The Kirk retort was widely used but gradually superseded from 1877 by the Henderson retort. He also improved the cooling process by applying a refrigeration device he had invented in 1856 for chilling brine. This was the first practical air-compression refrigerator, which was made under licence by the Norman Co of Glasgow, and sold all over the world for ice making.

1865 Kirk joined the management of James Aitken and Co's engine works in Glasgow

1869 He married, in Croydon, Ada Waller.

1870 He left Aitkens and practised as a consulting engineer.

1871 Engine works manager at Randolph, Elder and Co.

1877 Alexander Kirk left Elders on being appointed senior partner at the nearby shipbuilders Robert Napier and Sons. At Napiers, Alexander Kirk and his engine-works manager, Walter Brock, perfected the triple-expansion engine.

The mercantile marine readily adopted the compound steam engine but the Admiralty remained sceptical of the new approach until Kirk told them that he had sold compound engines of around 12,000 hp to the Imperial Russian navy from 1883. The Admiralty responded by placing two orders for cruisers at Napiers: the first of these, the SS Galatea, performed above their expectations at trials in 1885.

Kirk's distinguished engineering career was recognized by Glasgow University with the award of an honorary doctorate of laws in 1888, and by service as president of the Institute of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland from 1887 to 1889 and as vice-president of the Institution of Naval Architects in 1888. He died at his home, 19 Athole Gardens, Kelvinside, Glasgow, on 5 October 1892.


1892 Obituary [1]

Dr. ALEXANDER CARNEGIE KIRK was born on 16th July 1830 at the Manse of Barry, Forfarshire, of which parish his father was the minister.

After being educated at the Burgh School at Arbroath, and subsequently at Edinburgh University, he served his apprenticeship as an engineer in the Vulcan. Foundry of Robert Napier, Washington Street, Glasgow.

On the completion of his apprenticeship he went to London, where he rose to the position of chief draughtsman to the firm of Messrs. Maudslay, Sons and Field.

Some years later he returned to Scotland, and became engineer at the Bathgate paraffin oil works of Messrs. Young, Meldrum and Binney; on the dissolution of the firm he designed and erected for the senior partner the still greater establishment at West Calder.

Here, after a long series of experiments on the use of atmospheric air, instead of the sulphuric ether then employed for cooling the paraffin oil, he produced an engine somewhat similar in principle to Stirling's air engine, with a regenerator. The results were so satisfactory that the ether engine was superseded.

At the age of thirty-five he succeeded Mr. Rowan in the management of Messrs. James Aitken and Co.'s Engine Works at Cranstonhill, Glasgow, where he remained for five years, engaged in designing and constructing a large variety of marine, blowing, and winding engines, and oil machinery.

After spending a short period Glasgow as a consulting engineer, he became manager of the Centre Street and Fairfield Engine Works of Messrs. Elder and Co., shortly after the death of Mr. John Elder; and for the remainder of his life devoted himself almost entirely to marine engineering. While with Messrs. Elder he carried into effect the idea of a triple- expansion type of marine engine, and ultimately succeeded in rendering triple-expansion marine engines commercially profitable by applying them to ocean-going vessels.

In 1874 he designed and fitted on board the screw-steamer "Propontis" triple-expansion engines in which a high pressure of steam was employed; these engines were quite successful.

In 1877, a year after the death of Mr. Robert Napier, he joined Messrs. John and James Hamilton in the firm of Messrs. Robert Napier and Sons, of which he was the senior partner.

In 1881, after having endeavoured for some years to get the triple marine engine adopted, he constructed engines on this plan for the s.s. "Aberdeen," the first steamer for the celebrated line of clipper ships of Messrs. George Thompson and Co., who deserved great credit for adopting the principle. These engines, which were essentially of the same design as those of the "Propontis," used steam at 125 lbs. pressure in a boiler of the ordinary marine kind, and the economy in coal consumption was about 30 per cent.

Having devoted much time to experimental work, especially on the strength and durability of metals, he was a frequent contributor on this and other engineering subjects to the proceedings of professional institutions; and in recognition of his scientific attainments and practical work he received from the University of Glasgow the honorary degree of LL.D.

Having been in indifferent health for some time, he died from failure of the action of the heart on 5th October 1892, at the age of sixty-two.

He became a Member of this Institution in 1872, and was connected also with many institutions and societies, having been a vice-president of the Institution of Naval Architects, and President in 1887 of the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland.


1893 Obituary [2]

ALEXANDER CARNEGIE KIRK, LLB., who died suddenly at Glasgow on the 5th of October, 1892, was senior partner in the firm of Robert Napier and Sons, the engineers and shipbuilders of Govan.

He was born on the 16th of July, 1830, at Rarry, Forfarshire, of which parish his father was minister, and was educated at the Burgh School, Arbroath, and at the University of Edinburgh.

He then went to Glasgow, where he served an apprenticeship of five years to the late Robert Napier at the Vulcan Foundry, Washington Street.

On the completion of his apprenticeship in 1854 he proceeded to London and eventually became Chief Draughtsman in the office of Maudslay, Sons and Field, with whom he remained six years.

He then accepted the post of Engineer and Manager of the paraffin oil works of Young, Meldrum and Binney at Bathgate, for which firm he constructed the first practical, atmospheric refrigerating-machine and subsequently designed and erected new works at West Calder, involving the sinking of shale pits and the construction of a branch line from the North British Railway.

At both these works he displayed great genius for devising means of facilitating labour and economizing energy ; numerous improvements in shale-breaking and cooling-machinery were introduced by him, one of his inventions being a freezing machine for use in separating the solid paraffin in the oil.

Hitherto this had been done by ether-machines, but ether being dangerons Dr. Kirk in 1862 commenced a series of experiments on air-machines, with the result that he designed and made the dry-air freezing-machine which is now in a modified form so extensively used in connection with the carriage and storage of meat from the colonies.

In 1864, he read before the Institution of Engineers in Scotland a Paper on this subject and nine years later he submitted to this Institution a similar Paper, for which he was awarded a Watt Medal and a Telford Premium.

In 1866 Dr. Eirk returned to Glasgow as Manager of James Aitken and Co’s works at Cranston Hill, where he remained for two years, constructing marine and other engines, and oil-plant, both for this country and Australia.

He then practised as a Consulting Engineer from 1868 to 1870, during which time the moist-air refrigerating-machine was produced.

Soon after the death of John Elder in the latter year Dr. Kirk was appointed Manager of the Centre Street and Fairfield Engine Works, where he found ample scope for his great ability and soon became regarded as one of the leading Marine Engineers in the kingdom.

Under his supervision the compound-engines made by John Elder and Co were greatly improved, and from his special designs the three-cylinder compound-engine was introduced. He also at a litter date carried into effect the idea of a triple-expansion type of engine, the first attempt it is believed to apply the principle of triple-expansion to the engines of a steamship.

In 1874 he designed and fitted on board the screw-steamer 'Propontis,' belonging to W. H. Dixon and Co of Liverpool, engines on this principle, to work at a pressure of 150 lbs. per square-inch, having water-tube boilers; but owing to the failure of these boilers, and it being impossible at that time to work ordinary boilers at such a pressure, the engines had to be re-converted to the compound principle, with ordinary boilers. Thus the greatest modern improvement in marine engineering was checked for nearly eight years. The design of the engines of the 'Propontis,' having three cylinders and three cranks, is the one now in almost universal use for triple-expansion marine-engines.

In 1875, the year after the death of Mr. Robert Napier, Dr. Kirk severed his connection with the Fairfield establishment and, with Messrs. John and James Hamilton, acquired the business of Robert Napier and Sons.

Four years later, after steel had been introduced, and it became practicable to obtain higher pressures in an ordinary form of boiler, Dr. Kirk again turned his attention to the triple-expansion engine, and having induced George Thompson and Co., of the Aberdeen clipper line of sailing-vessels, to try this type of engine, he built and fitted a set for the screw-steamer 'Aberdeen' which proved beyond doubt that there was a considerable saving to be obtained over the compound type. A Paper 'On the Triple-Expansion Engines of the steamship Aberdeen,' was presented by Dr. Kirk to the Institution of Naval Architects in 1882.

In less than four years all the Marine Engineers in this country acknowledged the revolution which had taken place. The compound-engine became obsolete and the triple-expansion engine took its place, effecting a reduction of quite 25 per cent. in the consumption of coal and giving great impetus to shipbuilding and marine engineering. This type of engine has since been adopted not only by the English Admiralty but by most foreign governments.

Dr. Kirk received from the University of Glasgow the honorary degree of LL.D. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh; a Vice-President of the Institution of Naval Architects ; Past-President of the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland; and a Member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

In all these societies he took considerable interest and among the Papers he contributed to their Transactions the following, in addition to those already referred to, may he specially mentioned :- 'On the Effect of Punching on Iron and Steel Plates' ; 'On a Method of Analysing the forms of Ships and determining the mean angle of entrance' ; and 'On Cracks and Annealing of Steel.'

He was elected an Associate of this Institution on the 7th of February, 1865, and on the 26th of February, 1858, was transferred to the class of Member.

Reference has already been made to his Paper on the 'Mechanical Production of Cold,' read in 1874. Ten years later he delivered at the Institution by the invitation of the Council a lecture on 'Compressed- Air and other Refrigerating Machinery,' which formed one of the series of lectures on 'Heat in its Mechanical Applications.'

All who had the privilege of knowing Dr. Kirk will feel that a gap has been caused by his death not easy to fill. He was true and generous to a fault, always anxious and ready to listen to and discuss any proposed improvement in engineering, and his gentleness and kindness of heart endeared him to all his associates. As a designer of marine-engines, Dr. Kirk exhibited great talent and originality ; no detail was too small to be neglected and no experiment too unimportant to be carefully conducted. Indeed his success must be attributed to that combination of ability and industry which is so rarely found in the present day. Not only on the Clyde but in every port to which ships and engines find their way, the name of Dr. Kirk has for many years been respected as that of one of the cleverest, shrewdest and most honourable of Marine Engineers.


1892 Obituary [3]



See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. 1892 Institution of Mechanical Engineers: Obituaries
  2. 1893 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries
  3. Engineering 1892 Jul-Dec: Index: General Index