Archibald Barr

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Archibald Barr, D.Sc., L.L.D., F.R.S., F.R.S.E., M.Inst.C.E. (18 November, 1855 – 5 August, 1931) was a British academic engineer, instrumental in the development of rangefinders for the Royal Navy through his company Barr and Stroud, Ltd..

Barr was born at Glenfield, near Paisley, Renfrewshire, on 18 November 1855, the third son of Archibald Barr, yarn merchant, and his wife, Jeanie Stirrat, of Paisley. From Paisley grammar school he entered the local works of Messrs A. F. Craig & Co., manufacturers of spinning and weaving machinery, as an engineering apprentice under the Scottish ‘sandwich’ system, which enabled him to attend the winter sessions of Glasgow University, from which he graduated BSc in 1878.

In 1876 Barr was appointed as ‘Young assistant’ to the regius professor of civil engineering and mechanics, James Thomson. In 1884 he was appointed professor of civil and mechanical engineering at the Yorkshire College of Science, later Leeds University. Glasgow University recalled him in 1889, to succeed Thomson in the oldest chair of engineering science in the United Kingdom; this gave him the freedom to continue his important consultative business. He graduated DSc in 1890.

At Leeds, Barr met William Stroud, the professor of physics. Stroud had a talent for applying scientific theory to practical problems, and Barr was highly accomplished in mechanical design. In 1888 they collaborated on an improved optical rangefinder, which they patented that year. A version of the instrument was adopted by the Royal Navy in 1892, and in 1894 the professors set up a company, Barr and Stroud's Patents, to market the rangefinder and other inventions. In 1895 they established a small workshop in Glasgow to assemble and test rangefinders, expanding in 1904 into a large purpose-built factory at Anniesland on the outskirts of Glasgow. The firm supplied rangefinders to nearly all of the world's navies, and manufactured smaller, portable instruments which were adopted by the British, French, and other European armies. In 1912, Barr and Stroud became a private limited company. Barr, who was the senior partner and the head of the design team at Anniesland, resigned his university chair at Glasgow in 1913, becoming emeritus professor. He remained chairman of Barr and Stroud until his death. Barr and Stroud remained the sole supplier of periscopes to the Royal Navy, and a leading supplier of optronics, including thermal imaging equipment, to the British army.

Although Barr published relatively little academic work during his university career, he was widely admired as a teacher. Like Lord Kelvin, with whom he had worked, he believed in fostering links between town and gown; he was able to raise £40,000 from local industrialists and charitable bodies to build Glasgow's James Watt engineering building in 1901 and to persuade companies to donate most of the £14,000 required for the purchase of the scientific equipment installed in its laboratories. When he returned to the university in 1889, there were only thirty-nine students in his field, but the number had risen to over 200 by the time of his retirement. His contribution to the university extended beyond the department of civil and mechanical engineering; he helped to organize a new faculty of science in 1893, and successfully campaigned for a lectureship in electrical engineering, which was established in 1898.

Barr married in 1885 Isabella (1862–1928), eldest daughter of John Young, a wood merchant, of Priory Park, Castlehead, Paisley; they had three sons, the second of whom was killed in action in France in 1915, and a daughter. He received the honorary degree of LLD from Glasgow University in 1914 and was elected FRS in 1923. He was president of several learned societies. A keen motorist, he was a member of the Scottish Automobile Club and an organizer of Scotland's first motor car reliability trials in 1901; he also helped to form the Scottish Aeronautical Club in 1909, becoming its president, and was a promoter of Scotland's first aviation meeting, held at Lanark in 1910. His charity manifested itself in his service as a governor of the Royal Scottish National Institution for the care of those with learning difficulties, in his gift of £8000 towards the cost of a new organ for Paisley Abbey, and in his bequest of his house for charitable purposes.

In 1913 Barr was presented with two portraits, painted by G. Fiddes Watt. They represent the professor in a mood of seriousness which was rarely evident to his students. Barr died at his home, Westerton of Mugdock, near Milngavie, near Glasgow, on 5 August 1931.

Wealth at death; £153,568 15s.: Confirmation; 9 November, 1931.

See Also


  • Moss, Michael; Russell, Iain (1988). Range and Vision: The First Hundred years of Barr & Stroud. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing. ISBN 1851581286.