While searching through papers from our Robert Napier collection, I came across a very interesting and unexpected letter.
Robert Napier (1791-1876) was an engineer and shipbuilder who pioneered the integration of both disciplines. He was a very important figure in the ship-building past of Glasgow, often hailed as the ‘Father of Clyde Shipbuilding’, and was involved in the establishment of the Cunard Steam-Ship Company, designing and providing the engines for the first four liners.
James Robert Napier (1821-1879) was the son of Robert and he was taken as a partner in his father’s company, to form R. Napier & Sons, before he went on to build ships in his own right. He later became one of the founders of the Institution of Engineers in Scotland. James R. Napier matriculated here at the University of Glasgow in 1838 where he studied subjects such as Logic and Physics. He was also awarded a prize for Mathematics in this year.
It was in a file of letters to James R. Napier concerning ship orders and technical information that I found an interesting letter about a coffee machine. Amongst letters giving details about ships, engines and compasses, I was surprised to find this letter, dated July 1879, from a Dr. Thorpe from Leeds asking Napier to send him down one of his coffee machines:
“I should be much obliged to you therefore if you would instruct somebody in Glasgow who keeps the machine to send me one of sufficient size to make, say, a dozen small cups of after-dinner coffee.” (DC90/2/4/39)
Dr. Thorpe bemoans the fact that the glass globe of the last machine he used got broken and he supposes: “Leeds is too far out of the beaten track of civilisation to know what good coffee is…”
As he “cannot “mind” any of the names of any of the trades people in whose windows I used to see the machines”, he needs one sent down.
While the first coffee houses in the United Kingdom were opened in the mid 17th century and the drink enjoyed a very wide popularity, tea became the more popular beverage by the 18th century.
Nevertheless, coffee clearly remained a popular drink by the time of the industrial revolution and there was a thriving ‘coffee culture’ amongst British gentlemen.
James Napier invented a number of devices, and came up with methods, for improving the workings of ships and engines. Although a departure from his usual industrial products this coffee machine was, in fact, another one of James Napier’s inventions, and one of which he was rather proud.
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