After delivering the Berenice to the East India
Company, Napier resolved to make an effort to obtain an order from
the British Government. This was an extremely difficult matter to
manage, as conservatism overruled all other considerations,—Messrs
Watt, Maudslay, Seaward, and one or two others being considered by
the Authorities as the only firms worthy of being entrusted with
Admiralty engines. Napier, however, had now some powerful friends,
and owing to his European reputation his claims could not be
overlooked ; so in 1837 he was afforded an opportunity of tendering
to the Government, but no business resulted at that time. His first
successful tender was made in the spring of 1838, when he was asked
to offer for one or two sets of side-lever engines of 280 N.H.P.
In view of present-day practice, the details of this
offer are simple and interesting, and we reproduce them.
The whole of the engines and machinery guaranteed to
be equal to the best made in Britain, and finished to the entire
satisfaction of the Lords Commissioners and their engineers. .
This tender was accepted, and the engines were fitted
in the Vesuvius and Stromboli, vessels which took a prominent part
in the bombardment of Acre.
His influence must have been considerable and his
credit good, as on the 5th July 1838 he received a letter saying,
“The Lords Commissioners do not think it necessary to insist on your
giving bond for fulfilling your engagement to provide the steam -
engines you have contracted for.”
Admiral Erasmus Ommanney was Captain of the Vesuvius,
and after the vessel had been some years in commission he wrote as
H.M.S. Vesuvius, Beirout, February 1843.
Dear Mr Napier,—You will no doubt, and with very good
reason, call me a shabby fellow for not writing you since I have had
the pleasure of being carried so far by a pair of your incomparable
engines; but I trust it will be a satisfaction to hear that they
have done their duty well, and are now almost as efficient as when
they left Glasgow. I am proud to think they have been no expense to
Government for repairs since we have been on the station. . . .
The Stromboli is at Constantinople, where she has
been lying some time with little work; but I believe she is still in
perfect order about her engines. . . .
There has no vessel done her work equal to
the Vesuvius; always been ready when wanted, never had a screw
loose. . . .
Several of your old apprentices are out here. I send
you a small calculation of what we have done since we have been
employed the two first years.
In grateful recollection of kind attention to me. I
hope yourself and family continue to enjoy health and prosperity, of
which I shall be glad to hear if you have leisure.—Believe me, yours
very truly, Erasmus Ommanney, Captain.
In the meantime there was a cessation of orders from
the Government, probably from a desire to return to the old
restrictive policy of limiting the field to English engineers.
Napier, however, was not a man to be set aside lightly, and he had
powerful friends. He was confident in the superlative excellence of
his work, and, much to the annoyance of Sir W. Symonds, who was then
Surveyor of the Navy, Mr Robert Gore moved in Parliament for a
return of the names of marine-engine makers with whom the Admiralty
had made contracts for engines from the year 1839-1843 inclusive,
with the amount of horse - power ordered from each of such
engine-makers in each year; of the original cost of the engines of
her Majesty’s steam-vessels, Alecto, Devastation, Geyzer, Cyclops,
Prometheus, Polyphemus, Vesuvius, and Stromboli, specifying any
extra charge beyond contract price, and if such engines were fitted
with an indicator; of repairs and the cost of such repairs, and the
number of days and hours any of said vessels were incapable of
performing their work in consequence of such repairs, and of the
names of the makers of each of the said vessels.
This return was granted, and a synopsis of it is
given in the following table :—
As the table sets forth, Napier’s engines were shown
to cost the nation at first less money than those made by the
English contractors, and also to compare most favourably with them
in the amounts spent on repairs. As a result, from that time forward
he became one of the most trusted of the Admiralty’s contractors and
One of the first requests they made to him was for
advice on the Boiler question, which seems, even at that early date,
to have been troubling the official mind. As his reply is
instructive, we give a long extract from his letter.
“Glasgow, 9th March 1844.
“ To the Secretary of the Admiralty.
“Sir,—In complying with the request of my Lords
Commissioners of the Admiralty, as contained in Sir John Burrow’s
letter of the 8th February, regarding tubular boilers, &c., I have
been led, by the consideration of the subject, to take a more
general view of steam machinery and vessels than I had at first
intended, and have now the honour of submitting to my Lords the
following statement received from James Napier (i.e., his brother),
giving his experience in the construction and use of Patent Tubular
Boilers in steam vessels from the year 1831, together with my views
of boilers and machinery for steamers.
In 1831 I constructed boilers for the Aimwell steamer,
having tubes 4 inches in diameter and 8 feet long; in 1832, boilers
for the Duke of Lancaster, having tubes 5 inches diameter and 9 feet
long; in 1833, boilers for the Royal William, from Leith to London,
with tubes 7 inches diameter and 14 feet long; and subsequently
boilers for the Royal Adelaide and Royal Victoria, also from Leith
to London, with tubes 8 inches diameter and 16 feet long; in 1840,
the Bonnie Dundee, with tubes 11 inches diameter and 14 feet
long,—all of which gave entire satisfaction. From the above
examples, and a number of others, it was found that from 4 to 6 feet
of communicating surface in tubular boilers was as effective as 8 or
10 feet in common boilers, and that in all tubular boilers it
required great attention to be paid to have ample area for draft. .
I have in general found it advisable to have tubes of
larger diameter in order to ensure a good draft and proper
combustion rather than tubes of a smaller diameter with the same
area, although the latter might contain more heating surface, and
this more especially for vessels intended for long voyages or for
general service where bituminous coal, giving out a good deal of
smoke, must frequently be used. ... It has been found by experience
that the quantity of heat communicated to the water is fully three
times more in the fire - box than in the tubes, the surfaces in both
being equal. This, in my opinion, does not arise solely from the
greater intensity of heat in the fire-box, but also from the heat
resting on, or passing along, the surface of the fire-box with a
lower velocity than in the tubes, which confirms what I have
advanced in regard to the advantage of large tubes in preference to
very small ones.
Subjoined are dimensions of tubes which I would
consider suitable for vessels having a medium length allowed in the
engine-room for boilers:—
3-inch tubes, 7 feet long for 150 horse-power.
4-inch tubes, 8 feet long for 200 horse-power.
5-inch tubes, 9 feet long for 250 horse-power.
6-inch tubes, 10 feet long for 300 horse-power.
7-inch tubes, 11 feet long for 380 horse-power.
8-inch tubes, 12 feet long for 400 horse-power.
“Although it may be held as an axiom that the
greatest amount of power with the least weight carried and the
smallest space occupied by machinery are beneficial for a vessel,
this, when applied to boilers and machinery, may nevertheless in
practice be carried to an extent that would be highly improper and
“For example, tubular boilers, if constructed to
contain only a very small quantity of water with a very large amount
of heating surface and a very small area of ebullition and
separation, are unfit for giving out heat in a regular steady
manner, and of being maintained in a proper state under the most
skilful and careful arrangement, but will on the contrary vary
sensibly with every increase or diminution of the intensity of the
fires. . . .
“The injurious effect is even greater, in my opinion,
in regard to steam-engines when concentrated in the smallest space
with the least quantity and weight of materials. . . . Whenever
machinery is carried to the extreme of lightness in its proportion
as compared to power, and the different parts so crowded and
concentrated together, its efficiency and durability can hardly fail
of being impaired, even when the very best quality of materials,
combined with the greatest care, skill, and attention, are employed
in construction. . . .
“From the experience I have had for many years in
constructing and fitting out steamers of all kinds for war and
mercantile purposes, and the many opportunities I have had in the
course of business of seeing and examining almost every variety of
steamer, and of learning the great exertions that other countries
have been and are making for ascertaining the best forms and
proportions for vessels and engines for the purpose of establishing
steam navies with the view of competing with that of this country, I
trust my Lords will pardon the liberty I take in making a few
observations and suggestions relative to this subject.
“I am aware that many experienced officers and others
connected with the Navy are of the opinion that steam-vessels for
the purposes of war and ocean navigagation should have the length
only equal to about five times the breadth of beam. In so far as the
strength of ships is concerned these short proportions may be quite
unobjectionable, but before any vessel can be entitled to be called
a good steamer she ought not merely to be strong, but in every other
respect to be completely suited and adapted for the particular
service on which she is to be employed. . . .
“My decided opinion is that steamers for war and
general service navigating the ocean should never be less in length
than six times the breadth of their midship section unless some
special purpose demands another proportion. .
. .—I have the honour to be, Sir, your most humble obedient servant,
In those days the Admiralty were by no means
pioneers, and it was only after the difficulties connected with
experimenting had been successfully overcome in the mercantile
marine that what were no longer novelties were adopted. A very
different state of matters now prevails at Whitehall, where the
opposite course is followed, and costly experiments are occasionally
resorted to, often with disastrous results.