Early Napier Products and Machines
In 1808 David Napier initially found employment working for Henry Maudslay who is considered the father of machine tool technology and one of the instigators of the second industry revolution! After seven years learning his trade he left Maudslay to become a work’s foreman close to Fleet Street, undoubted gaining experience of the printing industry and machines. By 1817 he became the engineering partner in Messrs Baisler & Napier, Engineers repairing and later building printing machines at their business located at Lloyds Court in Soho. Baisler broke the partnership after just five years in 1822 to become a stationer & bookseller on Oxford Street but David continued setting up his own business from larger premises again in Lloyds Court. David’s business remained small but highly profitable as he specialised almost exclusively in building over 340 printing machines of “Nay-peer”, “Desidertum”, “Double Imperial” and “Platen” designs. In particular David’s own design ’Nay-Peer’ cylinder press of 1842 help establish his reputation after it was made famous by T.C.Hansard.
As well as printing presses the Company was often commissioned to manufacturer other novel and intricate devices! In 1833 they created a machine for making compressed musket and rifle balls. This machine produced a consistent quality of ammunition which ensured the projectile flew in a straight line and thus improved the accuracy of small arms fire. A number of these machines were sold to the Royal Arsenal Woolwich in 1842.
During 1840, hydraulic machinery was supplied to the Great Western Railway for the Bristol Terminus and was later followed by overhead travelling cranes at the Swindon Works. Power driven stamp printing and the world’s first reliable stamp perforating machines were also produced by D Napier & Son for Somerset House.
1842 also saw work started on the “Automaton” precision coin sorting and bullion balance coin weighing machines. The prototype was supplied to the Bank of England for test, and the following year they purchased three machines; they were consequently also used by Governments and mints around the world.
The company also supplied large non-condensing Beam Engines to drive their machines as evidenced by a survivor which drove the coin minting machines at the Royal Spanish Mint and subsequently preserved at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid.
1848 saw David Napier’s Captains Patent Registering Ships Compass which was a great aid to navigation as it registered on paper the exact course of the vessel over the preceding 24 hours. Between the years 1847 and 1866 a quantity of gun bore finishing machines were supplied to the Spanish Government and the Imperial Arsenal of St Petersburg, work was also carried out for the English Board of Ordnance.
Other items manufactured at this time were tide- gauge measures for the Admiralty, coin machines for the Mints in the UK and overseas, a hydraulic press for hot-pressing, an astronomical telescope, an envelope printing machine, the first postage perforating machines for Somerset House, and a sugar mill.
In 1854 the Crimean War brought considerable orders for Ship reversing gear quadrants, bilge pumps, rifle rods and for boring out thirty foot long cannon with three rifling grooves 5ft long x 5.5 in pitch.
After David’s death in 1873 the business continued under James Murdoch Napier’s control albeit in an ever decreasing way. James however was also a prolific inventor bringing out 47 patents including registering tide-gauges, mariners’ compasses, barometers, an apparatus for paying out submarine telegraph cables, machinery for the manufacture of soda, speed indicators and governors, and numerous smaller inventions.
In 1879 he was approached by Johnson Matthey & Co. Ltd to plane down and finish three ‘H’ section bars made of 90% Patinum and 10% Iridium. These were ordered by La Commission International du Metre in Paris and we can only wonder whether Napier’s metres were machined to imperial or metric tolerances! When James died in 1895 there were only seven employees remaining at the company. His youngest son Montague inherited the ailing business and set about its revival manufacturing machine tools for the burgeoning bicycle industry. During the mid-1890’s a foreman at the Napier Soho Works by the name of Ritter invented some in-line roller skates which were originally produced by the company. Montague Napier was a keen cyclist and also was know to use Ritter Roller Skates. However his interest soon turned to motor vehicles as we will see in the next section.