George Keith Buller Elphinstone

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SIR George Keith Buller Elphinstone, K.B.E. (11 May, 1865 – 6 July, 1941) was an electrical and mechanical engineer who joined the firm of Elliott Brothers in 1893 and rose to become Chairman of that company. He was deeply involved with the development and manufacture of the Dreyer Fire Control Tables and their successor, the Admiralty Fire Control Table.

Early Life and Career

Keith Elphinstone was born at 11 Melville Street, Edinburgh, on 11 May, 1865, the second son of Captain Edward Charles Buller Elphinstone, of the 92nd Highlanders, brother of the fifteenth Lord Elphinstone. His mother was Elizabeth Harriet Clerk, daughter of Sir George Clerk of Penicuik, Sixth Baronet. Elphinstone was educated at Charterhouse School, followed during 1884 by a year's pupillage with Woodhouse and Rawson, electric light engineers of London, before working for two years with Lord Elphinstone's company, the Elphinstone-Vincent Electro Dynamo Machine Company at 79½ Gracechurch Street, London.

He became a student member of the Society of Telegraph Engineers and Electricians in May, 1886, his business address given as Corrie Castle, Dunfermline. From 1887 to 1891 there were two more pupillages, the first with the new London Electric Company (formerly Grosvenor Gallery) and the second with Professor Alexander Kennedy at University College, followed by an apprenticeship at the Brush Electrical Engineering Company, Leicester.

In 1891 Elphinstone purchased Theiler & Sons, electrical instrument makers, at 86 Cannonbury Road, London, and when the instrument makers Elliott Brothers acquired Theiler in 1893, Elphinstone became a partner in that firm, with his office at 36 Leicester Square. He became a member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in April, 1896, his business address given as 101 St Martin's Lane, and over the next two decades was personally involved with patenting and developing various electrical and mechanical instruments, many for road, rail, and aviation use.

He invented motor car speedometers, installed the original electric speed recording equipment at Brooklands, and jointly with H.E. Wimperis in 1909 designed a very popular accelerometer for testing road and rail transport, which measured acceleration irrespective of the gradient or curvature of the track. Also, in the years preceding the First World War, he jointly patented with Wimperis several early aircraft instruments and bombsights, and, although these were never produced commercially, the relationship resulted in Elliott Brothers manufacturing all Wimperis bombsights and navigation instruments after the war.

However, Elphinstone is most remembered for his development work in the field of naval fire control equipment. He had been responsible for licensing the Anschütz naval gyrocompass from Germany and was involved with the gunnery calculator of Prince Louis of Battenberg and then in 1902 with that of Captain John Saumarez Dumaresq. However, as the speed of warships increased and target ranges changed rapidly, these early calculators became obsolete and were replaced by large complex fire control equipment and plotting tables, specifically that designed by Frederic C. Dreyer in 1911, in which the integrating mechanism, or clock, stretched contemporary electromechanical technology to its limits.

The Elliott equipment with its Dreyer-Elphinstone clock was selected in preference to the Argo equipment of Arthur J. H. Pollen for early installations and was used on many warships throughout the war. Elphinstone's service to the Admiralty was recognized by his O.B.E. in 1917 and his K.B.E. in 1920, and Pollen received a substantial award in 1925 for those ideas of his that were also incorporated. Elphinstone remained keenly interested in naval fire control equipment after the war, an interest which led to close friendship with several senior naval officers. He remained with Elliott Brothers until 1931 and was chairman of the company for some years.

Personal Details

On 25 April, 1899 Elphinstone married Katherine Amy (b. 1868/9), daughter of Colonel Alfred James Wake RA, of Blackheath, and they had one daughter. After Katherine died in 1925 he married, on 16 February, 1926, Isobel Penrose (b. 1876/7), daughter of Sir Theodore Fry, First Baronet.

Elphinstone was a man of great charm and integrity and the artist in him found expression in watercolours, woodcuts, and the construction of furniture and clocks. His life was one of personal courage and endurance to overcome the severe handicap of partially paralysed legs caused by polio. He died at his home, 5 Kingston House South, Ennismore Gardens, London, on 6 July, 1941 following a long illness aggravated by an earlier fall, which completely incapacitated him. He was survived by his second wife.


  • "Sir Keith Elphinstone" (Obituaries). The Times. Tuesday, 8 July, 1941. Issue 48972, col C, pg. 9.

See Also