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Coffee Break

Click for the full advert

While delving into old history books and gazetteers to find all things Carluke, I was struck by the regular appearance of adverts for coffee, in particular the one shown above. Here's the story behind the story. 

Robert Napier (1791-1876) was an engineer and shipbuilder and 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 on 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 graduated from the University of Glasgow in 1838 where he studied subjects such as Logic and Physics. He was also awarded a prize for Mathematics.


Then in 2012 buried in a pile of letters to James R. Napier concerning ship orders and technical information, an interesting letter about a coffee machine was discovered. Amongst letters giving details about ships, engines and compasses, was a 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.”

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.

It functions by boiling water in a carafe with a spout or tube which sends the piping hot water into a container of coffee. Then when all the water is transferred, you remove the heat and the hot coffee is sucked back into the glass container by vacuum. In fact to this very day you can buy a more compaact version from Amazon using the same design princliple.

Reproduced by Kind Permission from a story by Rachael Egan, University of Glasgow




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Created before 2012