Facts Not Opinions


By Julian Holland


Reprinted from The Australian Metrologist, No. 17, June 1999, pp. 9-12


In May 1884, the Curator of the recently established Technological Museum in Sydney, J.H. Maiden, wrote to England to acknowledge the receipt of more than 300 specimens. Every one of these was twisted or broken or fractured, yet Maiden’s only complaint was that one small specimen was missing. All the rest had arrived in ‘perfect order’. How could this be?

In those days, the Technological, Industrial and Sanitary Museum (to give it its full name), forerunner of the Powerhouse Museum, was much concerned with the economic uses of natural and manufactured materials. The newly arrived specimens of wood and stone and metal had been subjected to a variety of tests at the Testing and Experimenting Works of David Kirkaldy in Southwark, London. The process had been initiated a year earlier. Replying to Maiden’s letter of April 1883, Kirkaldy gladly undertook ‘to supply a suitable collection of Specimens illustrative of the Mechanical Properties of various kinds of Structural Materials tested under Pulling, Thrusting, Twisting, Bending, Shearing & Bulging Stresses’, each specimen to be accompanied by an explanatory card. Although seldom mentioned in histories of engineering, Kirkaldy was an important pioneer of scientific testing methods applied to structural materials.

David Kirkaldy was born near Dundee in Scotland in 1820. Not wishing to follow his father’s mercantile career he gained an appointment at Robert Napier’s Vulcan Foundry Works in Glasgow. In due course Kirkaldy moved from workshop to drawing office and later became renowned for the quality of his draughtsmanship. Glasgow was then a major port and Napier built ships. Kirkaldy took a keen interest in the characteristics of his employer’s ships, meticulously recording performance data as well as dimensions and weights.

With rapidly changing technology, old materials were being directed to new tasks and new materials were being introduced. The properties of these materials were not well understood. In conjunction with his work for Napier and Sons, Kirkaldy undertook a long series of tensile load tests between 1858 and 1861. He published his Results of an Experimental Inquiry into the Comparative Tensile Strength and other properties of various kinds of Wrought-Iron and Steel in 1862.

Wishing to develop his interest in engineering testing Kirkaldy left Napier in 1861 and over the next two and a half years studied existing testing techniques and designed his own testing machine. Entirely at his own expense, he commissioned this machine from the Leeds firm of Greenwood & Batley, closely supervising its production. Aggrieved over the slow rate of manufacture, after fifteen months he had it delivered to London still unfinished, in September 1865. The testing machine 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. It could apply all the various stresses mentioned in the letter quoted above.
Installed in rented premises at The Grove, Southwark, Kirkaldy’s Testing Works was ready for business on 1 January 1866. Business was not slow in coming. Tests in conjunction with the new Blackfriars Bridge were commissioned, and news of the new facility had spread so rapidly that a box of steel from Krupp in Essen, Germany, arrived within weeks. After some years business was such that Kirkaldy erected a purpose-designed building at 99 Southwark Street. This consisted of a basement, the testing machine and other equipment on the ground floor, a well equipped machine room for preparing specimens on the first floor, and museums of tested specimens on the second and third floors. Business commenced at the new premises at the beginning of 1874.

Driven by a personal vision of the role of testing in engineering, and an unswerving commitment to accuracy and honesty, Kirkaldy was ahead of his time, and to some extent suffered for it. The value of independent testing was increasingly recognised by some, and several materials testing laboratories were established in engineering schools in various parts of Europe in the 1870s. In 1877 the Belgian Government ordered a Kirkaldy machine which was again made by Greenwood & Batley. About the same time the Leeds firm also received orders for smaller versions of Kirkaldy’s machine, including one from University College, London.
The Large Testing Machine on the Ground Floor
While he had difficulties with some engineers and officials in England, Kirkaldy’s work was widely appreciated abroad. Krupp in Germany and Westanfors and Fagersta in Sweden were among numerous European firms which engaged Kirkaldy to undertake substantial testing programs. Recognition of the value of systematic testing also led to the supply of sets of test samples. As Kirkaldy informed Maiden in Sydney in 1883, he had supplied collections to several colleges and museums, and appended a list of specimens he had sent to the Imperial College of Engineering in Tokei, Japan, for £150. A similar collection was supplied to the Technological Museum which W.G. Kirkaldy later described as ‘an extensive one’ in contrast to other smaller ones. Sydney was the beneficiary of Kirkaldy’s endeavours in another way. In 1884 W.H. Warren, the new professor of engineering at the University of Sydney, ordered a small Kirkaldy machine from Greenwood & Batley. The testing of Australian timbers on this machine underpinned their subsequent use in structural work for several decades.

Kirkaldy took his son William George into partnership in 1884. On David Kirkaldy’s death in 1897, his son became sole proprietor until his own death in 1914. The firm was maintained by William’s widow until his son, another David, in turn took charge of it in the 1930s. The younger David ran the business until he sold it in 1965. The new proprietors maintained the Testing Works until it was closed in 1974.

The future of this important engineering heritage site was doubtful until 1980 when moves were begun to preserve it. The Kirkaldy Testing Museum was established in 1983. The original museums on the upper floors are no longer extant - the building suffered bomb damage during the Second World War - but the great testing machine is in place where it has stood for a century and a quarter, and still in working order. Anyone with an interest in engineering metrology visiting London would be eager to see this museum. The entrance today is from the street at the back, but the Romanesque facade of Kirkaldy’s Testing and Experimenting Works at 99 Southwark Street remains much as it was when Kirkaldy built it. If you go up to the main entrance you can read Kirkaldy’s motto carved in stone over the door: ‘FACTS NOT OPINIONS’.



I am grateful to Peter Skilton for sparing the time to show me over The Kirkaldy Testing Museum in July 1998, to Des Barrett of the Powerhouse Museum for obtaining copies of archival documents and for giving me access to the Kirkaldy test specimens now in storage, and to Ian Bowie who drew my attention to the Kirkaldy machine in Civil Engineering at the University of Sydney some years ago and first interested me in the work of David Kirkaldy.



(1)   Kirkaldy to Maiden, 1 June 1883 (MRS202, Inward Correspondence); Maiden to Kirkaldy, 1 August 1883 (MRS4, Letterbooks, vol. 2, pp. 350-51); Maiden to Kirkaldy, 17 May 1884 (ibid., pp. 719-20), Powerhouse Museum archives, Sydney

(2)  The following account is largely based on William G. Kirkaldy, Illustrations of David Kirkaldy’s System of Mechanical Testing (London, 1891), especially ‘Historical Sketch’, pp. 266-302; and Denis Smith, ‘David Kirkaldy (1820-1897) and Engineering Materials Testing’, Transactions of the Newcomen Society, 52 (1980-81), pp. 49-65

(3)  Aubrey F. Burstall, A History of Mechanical Engineering (London, 1963), p. 289

(4)  W.G. Kirkaldy (note 2), p. 16

(5)  W.H. Warren, The Strength, Elasticity, and Other Properties of New South Wales Hardwood Timbers (Sydney, 1911)


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© Julian Holland 1999-2005