ROBERT Napier was perhaps the greatest of all Clyde shipbuilders.

In his later years, he spoke of being born with a "hammer in his hand" and of the strength of his hereditary taste for the anvil.

Born in 1791 in Dumbarton, he was the son of James and Jean Napier. His father, a master smith, came from a long line of blacksmiths and engineers.

Glasgow Times: Robert Napier

Napier's family wanted him to go to university, but when he was 14, he decided to serve an apprenticeship with his father. After five years he moved to Edinburgh and worked for Robert Stevenson, builder of the Bell Rock Lighthouse.

After his early experience, chiefly as a millwright, in 1815 he established a small smith’s shop near High Street in Glasgow. That same year, he was admitted to the Incorporation of Hammermen, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.

He originally worked with his cousin David Napier, but when David moved on in 1821, he took over his Camlachie works. He engaged David Elder as his works manager. They stayed together for 40 years.

Glasgow Times: Foremen at Elder's shipyard

In 1823 he won a contract to construct a boiler and steam engine for the paddle steamer Leven. Its engine was so good that it was later fitted to another ship.

In 1827 Napier again achieved great success with the engines he built for the two fastest ships to compete in the Northern Yacht Club's August Regatta, helping to further his career.

Glasgow Times:

By 1827 he was reputed to be the best engineer on the Clyde. More orders came his way. He acquired the Vulcan Foundry in 1828 and took over the Lancefield works at Finnieston.

In 1838 Napier produced engines for two paddle steamers for the Admiralty but no further orders followed. After Napier raised the issue with Parliament, it was established that his engines were cheaper and more reliable than those built in the Admiralty's usual shipyards on the Thames.

Thereafter Napier became the Admiralty's primary engine builder.

In 1840 he decided he needed to build ships as well as engines. He expanded his company to include an iron shipbuilding yard in Govan and the Parkhead Forge Steelworks. In 1843 the steelworks produced its first ship.

Glasgow Times: Parkhead Forge steelworks

Napier had also made an association with Sam Cunard in 1840, forming a company to operate a steam packet service between Liverpool and New York. Subsequently, Napier built many Cunard ships, including, later in his career, The Scotia, which made the passage in less than nine days.

The evolution of iron-clad, steam-engine warships put the Admiralty dockyards on the South coast at a disadvantage.

They were situated far away from the sources of coal and iron. Napier was in touch with the Admiralty and procured a contact with the Royal Navy to produce three vessels. These were its first iron vessels.

Latterly his reputation was established as a builder of warships, not only for the British Government, but for many others.

In the 1850s and 1860s, when his fame was at its peak, “he executed contracts for almost every nation in the world and many honours were bestowed on him".

His great reputation was partly achieved as a practical engineer and shipbuilder. He fully understood his role and the requirements of the job. He was respected for his thoroughness by all the managers and the men he employed.

READ NEXT: Remarkable tale of Glasgow veteran, 98, who sailed in the D-Day landings

Many of the imaginative and ingenious ideas, particularly in marine engineering with which he is most associated, were his own.

However, he reaped the benefits from the outstanding men behind him, including many of Scotland's most celebrated shipbuilders.

This included James and George Thomson, who founded the J&G Thomson shipyard, later John Brown and Company, and John Elder of the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company.

A few years after his death in 1876 a tribute to Napier commented he “was practically the father of steam shipbuilding” and made the “Clyde famous as the seat of that great national industry – first by his own work, and then by the work of the celebrated men who followed in his wake, many of whom were brought up and bred in his yard, his engine works or his foundry".