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Kirkaldy Testing Works
99 Southwark Street, London, UK
associated engineer
David Kirkaldy
date  1873, opened 1st January 1874
UK era  Victorian  |  category  Building  |  reference  TQ318802
ICE reference number  HEW 2155
David Kirkaldy devised and patented a universal testing machine for engineering materials. It was installed in a purpose-built workshop in London where it remains, more than a century later, kept in working order by volunteers. Kirkaldy’s company furthered the understanding of structural behaviour under load — assessing samples received from projects worldwide and doing on-site testing. The Grade II* listed workshop is now a museum.
In the mid-19th century, determining the strength of materials through testing and experiment was done ad hoc, with varying accuracy. Scale models, full-size structures, small samples or engineering materials were used, and there was no common methodology.
David Kirkaldy (1820-97) pioneered the systematic testing of engineering materials. From 1843, he had been working at Robert Napier's (1791-1876) Vulcan Foundry in Glasgow, on the design of steamships. He recorded full details of the performance of the ships’ engines and boilers during sea trials, in the pursuit of predicting future performance and facilitating improvements.
Using a combination of excellent technical drawing skills (his engineering drawings were shown at the Paris Exhibition in 1855 and Royal Academy in 1861) and meticulous collection of data on the behaviour of materials, he designed a tensile testing machine for the company. Between 13th April 1858 and 18th September 1861, he used it for comparative tests on specimens of steel and wrought iron. He also investigated the strength-enhancing properties of oil-hardening steel and patented his findings (Patent No.1246, 20th May 1859).
In late 1861, he left Napiers and began developing his own universal testing machine. The huge apparatus, 14.5m long, 1.3m wide and weighing 116 tonnes, was designed to test "all kinds of constructive materials" under tension, compression, crushing, bending, torsion, shear, punching and bulging. His patented design (Patent No.2970, 26th November 1863) was constructed between June 1864 and September 1865, at his own expense, by Greenwood & Batley of Leeds.
The machine operates horizontally, applying load using an hydraulic cylinder and ram. The maximum applied load is 453.6 tonnes (1 million lb), though Kirkaldy said he never worked above 304.8 tonnes. The load is calibrated with a weighted steelyard in increments of 22.7kg (50lb). The hydraulic system uses water rather than oil, powered initially by a steam engine driving a reciprocating pump. Its actuator is 457mm in diameter with a 1.8m stroke.
The machine bed consists of four iron box castings bolted together. The steelyard and lever system are mounted at one end of the machine and the cylinder, with a ram, at the other. The ram operates a crosshead attached to four threaded rods, each 146mm in diameter and 11m long. A transverse carriage 3.35m wide moves along the rods using hand-operated wheels to accommodate specimens of different lengths.
More than 90 percent of tests carried out (1865-1974) were for compressive, bending or tensile strength. Compression testing specimens are set between the carriage and the hydraulic cylinder. Tension specimens are placed between the carriage and the lever system, and bending specimens are mounted parallel to the carriage. Various yokes and frames are added to perform other kinds of tests.
In 1865, Kirkaldy established an independent company, David Kirkaldy Testing & Experimenting Works, which would serve construction and other industries until 1965. His testing machine was erected in rented premises in The Grove in Southwark, London. The formal opening was on 25th November 1865, and on 1st January 1866, public testing operations began.
In January 1866, Kirkaldy ordered additional castings to extend the testing machine’s carriage, increasing the span of girder he could test. Soon he was reporting compression tests on timber logs 6.1m long and 330mm square, and wrought iron girders 914mm deep and of 7.9m span, as well as tension tests on wires and cement briquettes.
One of the first test series was on construction materials for Blackfriars Bridge (opened 1869) in London. Clients sent specimens for testing from all over the world — Krupp of Essen in Germany was one of the earliest. In 1869, Kirkaldy tested steel for the Eads Bridge in St Louis, Missouri (constructed 1867-74).
Through numerous experiments he investigated and improved current practice related to welding, eye-bar links, tie rods, engine coupling gear, and railway axles, hooks and screws. He also proved the superiority of drilled holes in steel over punched holes. He was involved with the Institution of Civil Engineers’ Steel Committee between 1866 and 1871 and with the Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ tests on riveted joints.
The testing works soon needed more space. On 29th September 1872, Kirkaldy was granted an 80 year lease for land on a new street and the present purpose-built building at 99 Southwark Street was constructed. It was completed by the end of 1873, to the design of Thomas Roger Smith (1830-1903). The new works opened on 1st January 1874.
The brick building’s Italianate architecture is typical of the Southwark area at the time. Its trapezoidal footprint is 23.2m long on the street elevation, 8.8m wide at the east end and 12.8m at the west. It covers four storeys and a basement, with distinguishing features such as opposing double doors at the front and rear to allow very large beams to be accommodated for testing, strengthened basement pillars to bear the weight of the machine and removable floor panels for running the test equipment. Kirkaldy’s motto "Facts not Opinions" is carved into the pediment above the main entrance.
The basement was used for cement, concrete and mortar tests, and also held a boiler for the steam engine, a furnace and a forge. The relocated universal testing machine was installed on the ground floor, resting on — but not bolted to — the brick columns in the basement. Also on the ground floor, a travelling block and tackle handled the test specimens, and steam-driven belt drove line shafting for the first floor workshop. The second floor held full-size tested items and the third floor was Kirkaldy’s "museum of fractures" displaying tested samples in glass cases.
Such was the renown of Kirkaldy’s machine that in November 1877, he received an order from the Belgian government for a replica. Constructed "on the metrical scale", it was manufactured by Greenwood & Batley and delivered to the arsenal at Mechelen by the end of 1878. Greenwood & Batley also made smaller versions, including one for University College London.
Kirkaldy made tests on several of London’s bridges, including suspension links for Hammersmith Bridge (1887). In April and early May 1880, in the wake of the Tay Bridge disaster (28th December 1879), pieces of the wrecked girders were recovered from the Tay and brought to the works for testing. Surprisingly, Kirkaldy was not called to take part in the official inquiry.
In 1884, the company was renamed David Kirkaldy & Son when his son, William George Kirkaldy (1862-1914), became a partner. After David’s death in 1897, William ran the business and was also involved with establishing Britain's National Physical Laboratory.
The original steam engine was replaced with a gas engine (date unknown). In 1905, the gas engine was replaced by a 400V direct current electric motor. In the same year, high pressure water mains from the London Hydraulic Power Company mains were connected to the works.
In 1906, a Denison horizontal chain tester was installed in the basement. In 1910, William Kirkaldy reported results from the tensile impact machine he had developed. From 1914, William's widow Annie Kirkaldy (d.1938) took charge of the works and appointed Dr Gilbert Gulliver (d.1950) as manager.
The company also carried out on-site testing. In 1923, it load tested the original Wembley Stadium (dem. 2003). Sandbags were used for dead load testing and live loading was simulated by hundreds of men repeatedly standing, stamping and sitting in unison.
From 1934, hydraulic power for the testing machine was supplied solely from the mains supply, either directly or via an intensifier in the basement. Also in 1934, David Kirkaldy’s grandson, David William Henry Kirkaldy (1910–1992), joined the business after studying at King’s College Cambridge. He owned the works from September 1938 until his retirement in April 1965.
In the 1940s, the top floor of the building was damaged during wartime air raids. The tested samples were removed to provide scrap metal for the war effort. Later, the second and third floors of the building were used as laboratories by analytical chemist Treharne & Davies.
During the 1950s, the works undertook tests on steelwork components for Skylon (erected at the 1951 Festival of Britain), and salvaged wreckage from the de Havilland Comet aircraft that crashed near Elba on 10th January 1954. The cause of the aircraft disaster, in which all 35 people aboard died, was found to be metal fatigue.
In 1955, the works was converted to an alternating current electrical supply. In 1965, when David William Henry Kirkaldy retired, the business was sold to Treharne & Davies Ltd, already occupying the upper floors of the Southwark Street building.
During the century of the Kirkaldy family’s tenure (1865-1965), the testing company wasn't incorporated as a limited company, despite the legal protection that would have conferred. With the exception of a leaflet produced for the opening of the Southwark Street building, the company did not, and had no need to, advertise for business (though it appeared in various directories).
In May 1971, the Kirkaldy Testing Works was Grade II listed. Testing continued until the works closed in 1974, after which the building was visited by members of the Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society. In 1975, the building and testing machine were listed for preservation. It was the first case of a machine being listed as part of a building.
After the departure of Treharne & Davies, the building reverted to the Crown Estate, which owns the land. In 1978, the Crown Estate leased it as offices to the Industrial Buildings Preservation Trust on condition that the ground floor and basement be turned into a museum, with the testing machine as the centrepiece.
The charitable organisation, Kirkaldy Testing Museum, was established in 1983 and the museum opened in spring the following year. It is staffed entirely by volunteers.
Building conservation works took place between 1983 and 2011, necessitating the cataloguing, moving, storing, reinstalling and restoring of most of the building's contents. New power supply and lighting were installed, a small machine shop with lathe and mill created, and glass block pavement lights replaced the Victorian iron grilles.
However, by 1983 Kirkaldy’s testing machine was no longer operational. It remained in place during the conservation works. To restore it, the high‐pressure cylinder was re-bored in position and a new oversize piston and leather seal, similar to the original, made and fitted. The hydraulic system is now powered by a small electric water pump.
In 1987, the machine was given an Engineering Heritage Award from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. The citation reads, "This machine established the present-day system of materials testing and specifications of mechanical properties for engineering materials".
The museum’s collection of test machinery has increased in number. Among notable examples are items donated by Imperial College’s mechanical engineering department, such as the 27.2 tonne (60,000lb) Riehle universal machine (circa 1890). It tests samples in tension and compression, and was in use at Imperial College from new until 1985.
The museum also houses two Avery testers. The 1925 Avery Izod pendulum machine was restored with a new high‐strength steel specimen clamp assembly, aluminium alloy replacement shaft bearing caps and indicator parts, all made on site. The 1926 W. &T. Avery tensile machine, small and simple to operate, was used by Irvin Parachute Company until 2001 when it was acquired by the museum. The machine can apply a maximum load of 204.1kg (450lb). It tests the extension under load and ultimate strength of parachute rigging lines. The lines run from the shroud, or canopy, of the parachute to the lift webs.
However, testing the webbing used for the lift webs and parachute harness requires a force of ten times the ultimate load exerted by the Avery machine. TheAlfred Amsler three phase electro/oil hydraulic machine, located immediately next to the Avery tensile machine, provides the necessary loading to test the webbing fabrics to breaking point. Both machines are maintained in full working order.
The basement holds a concrete preparation and test area with a 101.6 tonne hydraulic press. Other equipment for concrete and cement testing includes a tensile test machine for cement briquettes, concrete cube moulds, and a compacter.
Wire testing equipment includes a Tarnogrocki wire torsion machine built in Essen, Germany, in about 1900, a small machine for reverse bending tests and hand tools for finishing the cut ends of wire rope. The museum also contains a comprehensive collection of extensometers and a library of books, manuals and works records.
In June 2014, the Kirkaldy Testing Works museum’s listing was upgraded to II* status, reflecting the rarity value of the universal testing machine (the Mechelen machine has not survived) and its largely unaltered surroundings.
The museum was intended to be self-financing, with the three levels of offices above it providing income for the owner of the building. Ownership passed from the Industrial Buildings Preservation Trust to engineers Waterman Partners. However, sometime after 2010, it was acquired by a commercial landlord and the current low cost/low income business model may not prove sustainable. GLIAS, with support from the Newcomen Society among others, believes that the heritage listing should be raised to Grade I to safeguard the building and its contents.
Architect: Thomas Roger Smith
Contractor: L.H. & R. Roberts, Islington
Testing machine: Greenwood & Batley, Leeds
testing machine ironwork: Lloyds, Foster & Co
Research: ECPK
"Development of the Kirkaldy Testing Museum from 1980" by Hugh MacGillivray, Tim Crichton, Peter Skilton and Denis Smith, ASTM Workshop on the History of Mechanical Testing, Tampa, Florida, 13th November 2011
"Facts Not Opinions" by Julian Holland, The Australian Metrologist. No.17, pp.9-12, June 1999
"David Kirkaldy (1820-1897) and Engineering Materials Testing" by Denis Smith, Transactions of the Newcomen Society, 52:1, pp.49-65, London, 1980
Thanks to Tim Crichton, chair of trustees at the museum, for additional information
reference sources   CEH LondBDCE2DNB

Kirkaldy Testing Works