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British Industrial History

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John Donaldson

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John Donaldson (1841-1899) of Thornycroft

c1883 Birth of his son Thornycroft Donaldson

1890 of John I. Thornycroft and Co, Steam Yacht and Launch Builders, Church Wharf, Chiswick, London, W.; and Tower House, Turnham Green.

1899 Obituary.[1]

WE regret to record the death of this well-known engineer, which took place on the 4th inst. Mr. Donaldson was, a relative of Mr. J. I. Thornycroft, and a partner in the celebrated firm at Chiswick, and as such may be regarded as a pioneer in modern naval and land automobilism. He had very much to do with the introduction of torpedo boats into the British and other services, and it is to his skill in design that small high-speed steam motors have been so perfected for this and similar purposes. He was regarded as a high authority on all questions relating to modern steam machinery. He was much respected by his colleagues in the profession, and by a large circle of private friends.

1899 Obituary [2]

"...death, on Wednesday morning last, of Mr. John Donaldson, brother-in-law and partner of Mr. J. I. Thornycroft. Mr. Donaldson was born at Elgin in 1841, and was in his fifty-eighth year at the time of his death. He was educated at the Old Grammar School in Aberdeen, but came over the border to serve his time as no engineer, being apprenticed in Morrison's works at Newcastle-on-Tyne.

From this place he went to Carlisle and became chief draughtsman at Cowans, Sheldon, and Co., Limited, afterwards spending a year at Glasgow University.

Afterwards he had some experience of naval engineering, and was with the fleet attending Lord Napier's Abyssinian Expedition. He was then entrusted with the management and remodelling of the Dum-Dum Ammunition Factory in India under General Walker, being afterwards drafted into the Public Works Department, in which capacity he prospected in the Hazaribagh country for coal and iron, reporting favourably as to whether the manufacture of..."

1899 Obituary [3]

JOHN DONALDSON was born at Elgin on 29th December 1841.

His father and grandfather were owners and managers of all the principal mail coaches in the North of Scotland, and he was educated at the Old Grammar School in Aberdeen.

He served an apprenticeship in Morrison's Engineering Works, Ouseburn, Newcastle-on-Tyne, and on its expiration was engaged for about four years as draughtsman at various works on the north-east coast, and as chief draughtsman at Messrs. Cowans, Sheldon and Co., of Carlisle.

He next went to Glasgow University, and distinguished himself highly in examinations. It was in the class-room that he met Mr. John I. Thornycroft, with whom he afterwards went into partnership.

Having worked his passage round the Cape of Good Hope as engineer of a small steamer 120 feet long, only to learn that the Egyptian appointment he had in view had been filled, he joined as engineer one of the steamers employed to distil water for Napier's expedition to Abyssinia.

On returning to England in 1869, he was appointed chief mechanical engineer at Dum-Dum Arsenal in India, which he completely remodelled. Lord Mayo then transferred him to the Public Works Department, and he reported favourably on the coal and iron in the Hazaribagh district.

In 1870 he was appointed chief assistant to the engineer of the Calcutta Port Commissioners, and was engaged in embanking and improving the River Hooghly.

In 1872 he married at Bombay the sister of Mr. Thornycroft, who had just started a yard at Chiswick for building high-speed launches. In the following year, having entered into partnership with Mr. Thornycroft, they produced the first fast torpedo-boat, which was for the Norwegian Navy; and by lectures in 1877 and 1881 he helped to bring about their introduction into the British Navy.

On the introduction of the Thornycroft water-tube boiler, he induced the Admiralty to allow H.M.S. "Speedy" to be fitted with them, at the sole risk of the makers, and gradually helped to raise the position of the firm until in 1897 they employed 1,800 men.

For nine years he gave his experience on the Chiswick Local Board, carrying through an extensive drainage scheme. He was a prime mover in the establishment of the London Association of Engineering Employers, of which he was a vice-president, and for which, when the Employers' Federation was formed, he acted as a representative on the Federation Board and at the conferences.

The work entailed by these meetings contributed largely to the breakdown of his health, and his death took place at Pangbourne on 4th October 1899, in his fifty-eight year.

He became a Member of this Institution in 1876.

1900 Obituary [4]

1841 born at Elgin on the 29th December in a family of coach-builders and proprietors of coaches from Aberdeen to the north of Scotland....

c.1856 went to Tyneside to serve his apprenticeship with Mr. Robert Morrison, Marine Engineer, on the Ouseburn, Newcastle... After about eighteen months' drawing office experience. with the Walker Iron Works and other firms, Mr. Donaldson, at the age of twenty-three, went as Chief Draughtsman to Messrs. Cowans, Sheldon and Co, a well-known firm of General Engineers and Crane Makers in Carlisle. ... 1866-67 took a course at Glasgow university in one year instead of the usual two... Both Rankine and Sir William Thomson spoke of him as a most distinguished student. In the engineering class he was first in his year, and gained the first Walker prize for the oral examination... Met his future partner Mr. Thornycroft, as a fellow-student at Glasgow....

After leaving Glasgow he went to sea for experience. While waiting at Suez for an expected appointment he served as Engineer in the Viceroy of India's Yacht; on the appointment being offered, he was unable to accept it, as he was not allowed to leave the service during war time.... Returning to England after the war he obtained the post of Chief Mechanical Engineer at the Dum Dum Ammunition Factory in India....

In 1871 he became assistant to the Chief Engineer of the Calcutta Port Trust Commissioners... married early in 1872 Frances Sarah, daughter of Thomas and Mary Thornycroft, both distinguished sculptors.....

1872 as his wife’s health suffered from the Indian climate, they came home to join his brother-in-law, John Isaac Thornycroft, in his new business....

While his partner, as was natural, continued to dominate the scientific side of the business, Mr. Donaldson, in addition to managing the commercial side, rendered much assistance with his engineering skill and experience in manufacture....

He also superintended the trials of many of the vessels built by the firm.....

When about the year 1885 Mr. Thornycroft brought out his wellknown water-tube boiler, Mr. Donaldson at once saw the far-reaching consequences of its success, though from others it encountered at first opposition.

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