City of London - Engineering Hall of Fame

David Kirkaldy (1820-1897)

Mechanical and materials engineer who established the world’s first independent commercial materials testing laboratory in Southwark, now open as a working museum, Kirkaldy’s Testing Works.

City of London Connections

Born in Dundee, Scotland to a merchant family and educated at the University of Edinburgh. Apprenticed at Robert Napier‘s Vulcan Foundry in Glasgow in 1843 where he designed steamships, engines and boilers. By 1847 he was Chief Draughtsman and Calculator. He started a mammoth comparative test programme on iron & steel in 1858 with results published in 1862.

Kirkaldy resigned from Napier’s to design his Universal Testing Machine, which was patented in 1863. The machine was built by Greenwood & Batley of Leeds and was sent to London in 1865 and started work in The Grove, Southwark. The purpose-built Testing & Experimenting Works at 99 Southwark Street was opened in 1874, designed specifically to house the Universal Testing Machine, which is 47 feet 7 inches long, weighs some 116 tons, and was designed to work horizontally, the load applied by a hydraulic cylinder and ram.

The Universal Testing Machine [Image - Peter Gazely]
The Universal Testing Machine. [Image credit – Peter Dazeley]

Manufacturers sent materials from all over the world. Early clients were Alfred Krupp of Germany, Borsig of Belgium, The Belgian Royal Gun Factory of Liege and Westenfors and Fagersta of Sweden. Specific engineering commissions include the testing of parts for James Eads’ 1867 St Louis Bridge over the Mississippi River and for Indian railways. He was also asked to perform tests on elements of the failed Tay Bridge in 1880 and was able to give insights into possible causes for the disaster. The Testing Works was run by three generations of the Kirkaldy family: David’s son, William, developed an impact testing machine and was closely involved in the establishment of the National Physical Laboratory.

Kirkaldy’s Testing Works at 99 Southwark Street, London
Kirkaldy’s Testing Works at 99 Southwark Street, London. [image credit Tommophoto]

The Testing Works had the ability to test a wide variety of material types and forms, and a key part of the business was testing and certifying the safety of the mooring chains used across the London docks including those within the City boundaries.

Contribution to Engineering during Lifetime

Kirkaldy established the world’s first independent commercial materials testing house which served the City and the world from 1874 to 1965. He was a pioneer in the field of quality control and failure analysis, through rigorous and accurate testing of materials. His mantra was ‘Facts Not Opinions’, which can still be seen inscribed above the door at 99 Southwark Street.

"Facts Not Opinions" - Kirkaldy’s immortal words above the entrance to his Testing Works
Kirkaldy’s immortal words above the entrance to his Testing Works [image credit Tommophoto]


Kirkaldy’s Testing Works Museum [Image - Peter Gazely]

The Kirkaldy Testing Works at 99 Southwark Street is now a working museum run by volunteers, open to the public for tours, educational visits and events. Kirkaldy’s Universal Testing Machine and several other historical testing machines are maintained in operating condition and can be seen working by visitors. Both the building and the machine are Grade 2* Listed.

Kirkaldy is widely recognized as a key figure in the establishment of structural materials testing as both a scientific and an engineering discipline. He also pioneered the technique of polishing and etching metallic specimens to enable their structures and phases to be observed using optical microscopy.

His machine was used to test materials in the de Havilland Comet crash investigations and also tested materials used in the construction of structures including Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Festival of Britain Skylon and many other significant structures and applications.

He was inducted into the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame in 2023.

The assistance of Caroline Jones and Trustees of the Kirkaldy’s Testing Works museum in the preparation of this article is gratefully acknowledged as are the machine images taken by Peter Dazeley.

References and Further Reading

Denis Smith: David Kirkaldy (1820-1897) and engineering Materials Testing, Transactions of the Newcomen Society 53,1 (1980)

Frances Robertson, David Kirkaldy (1820-1897) and his museum of destruction: the visual dilemmas of an engineer as man of science. Endeavour, 37,3 (2013) 125-132.

Contribution to Sustainable Development Goals

David was driven by improving the safety, quality and reliability of the structural materials being used in our infrastructure, and recognised the fundamental importance of testing as the underpinning enabler of those.

SDG Targets 9.1; 9.5

Images courtesy of the Kirkaldy Testing Works museum, Tommophoto and Peter Dazeley

Year of Induction
Sponsoring Livery Company
Armourers & Brasiers