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Donald McKay

Donald McKay

Donald McKay (1810-1880), American ship builder, designed and constructed many of the world's great clipper ships that set numerous transoceanic speed records.

Donald McKay was born on a farm in Shelburne County, Nova Scotia. He was educated in the common schools there and was apprenticed as a ship carpenter in New York City after emigrating in 1827. After mastering his trade, he was commissioned in 1839 to finish a ship in Wiscasset, Maine. He soon formed a partnership in Newburyport, Mass., where he built a number of packet ships. As his reputation spread, he received other assignments for design and construction. In 1844 he was chosen to build a ship for the transatlantic traffic by Enoch Train, who also induced him to set up a shipyard in East Boston.

This was the dawn of the clipper ship era. There was great demand for ships that could guarantee fast delivery of cargo from China, as well as rapid passage to the goldfields of California and Australia. Great emphasis was placed on the design of these clipper ships so that they could successfully travel long distances at high speed. McKay applied the most advanced theories of design and construction in his yard, personally supervising every step, from the laying of the keel to the final outfitting. He turned out the greatest tonnage of successful clippers in the world.

McKay's name became synonymous with excellence from the first clipper, the Stag Hound in 1850, to the last, the Glory of the Seas, launched in 1869. Among his most famous vessels were the Flying Cloud, Sovereign of the Seas, Lightning, and the Great Republic. His vessels set marks, some of which are still unsurpassed.

The Panic of 1857 adversely affected McKay, but he survived the lean years that followed by building less spectacular ships. Travel and study in Britain convinced him that the day of the armored steamship was at hand, and he made serious efforts to persuade the U.S. government to replace outmoded naval sailing vessels.

During the Civil War, McKay built ships for the U.S. Navy, and in the postwar years, after retooling his yard, he devoted himself to building steamships. His merely moderate success in these endeavors led him to dispose of his yard in 1869. Ill health forced him to retire in 1877. He died at his country estate in Hamilton, Mass.

Further Reading

Richard Cornelius McKay, Some Famous Sailing Ships and Their Builder, Donald McKay (1928), has a good biography. John Robinson, The Sailing Ships of New England (1924), includes a long section on McKay. Alexander Kinnan Laing, Clipper Ship Men (1944), deals with McKay and his contemporaries. William Armstrong Fairburn, Merchant Sail (6 vols., 1945-1955), has extensive material on McKay and his ships.

Additional Sources

McKay, Richard C. (Richard Cornelius), Donald McKay and his famous sailing ships, New York: Dover Publications, 1995.

McKay, Richard C. (Richard Cornelius), Some famous sailing ships and their builder, Donald McKay: a study of the American sailing packet and clipper eras, with biographical sketches of America's foremost designer and master-builder of ships, and a comprehensive history of his many famous ships, Norwalk, Conn.: Easton Press, 1988. □

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McKay, Donald

Donald McKay (məkā´, məkī´), 1810–80, American shipbuilder, b. Nova Scotia. He opened his own shipyard in Newburyport, Mass., in 1841, then moved to Boston in 1845. He grew celebrated as designer and builder of the largest ships of his time and sleek, swift clippers, some of the most beautiful ships ever to sail the seas. Some of the vessels he built were the New World, a three-decker, the largest ship known in 1845; the Lightning and the James Baines, clippers which established new speed records for the long England-to-Australia route; and the Glory of the Seas, which in 1869 made a record run of 94 days from New York to San Francisco. He built several ships for the Union navy in the Civil War.

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clipper

clip·per / ˈklipər/ • n. 1. (usu. clippers) an instrument for cutting or trimming small pieces off things. 2. a person who clips or cuts: a coupon clipper. 3. Electr. another term for limiter. 4. (also clip·per chip) a microchip that inserts an identifying code into encrypted transmissions, allowing them to be deciphered by a third party having access to a government-held key. 5. (also clip·per ship) a fast sailing ship, esp. one of 19th-century design with concave bows and raked masts.

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clipper

clipper fast-sailing vessel. XIX. f. CLIP 2 in the sense ‘move quickly’; prob. infl. by CUTTER.

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clipper

clipperAgrippa, chipper, clipper, dipper, equipper, flipper, gripper, hipper, kipper, nipper, Pippa, ripper, shipper, sipper, skipper, slipper, stripper, tipper, tripper, whipper, zipper •crimper, shrimper, simper, whimper, Whymper •crisper, whisper •mudskipper • caliper • Philippa •juniper • gossiper •worshipper (US worshiper) •griper, piper, sniper, swiper, viper, wiper •bagpiper • sandpiper •bopper, chopper, copper, cropper, Dopper, dropper, hopper, improper, Joppa, poppa, popper, proper, shopper, stopper, swapper, topper, whopper •stomper • prosper • bebopper •teenybopper • grasshopper •clodhopper • sharecropper •name-dropper • eavesdropper •window-shopper • doorstopper •show-stopper •gawper, pauper, torpor, warper

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clipper

clipper a fast sailing ship, especially one of 19th-century design with concave bows and raked masts.

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clipper

clipper, type of sailing ship, designed for speed. Long and narrow, the clipper had the greatest beam aft of the center; the bow cleaved the waves; and the ship carried, besides topgallant and royal sails, skysails and moonrakers—a veritable cloud of sails. The type originated in the United States. Baltimore clippers and Atlantic packet ships were the forerunners of the true Yankee clipper, which may be said to have emerged with the Ann McKim, completed in Baltimore in 1833. The Yankee clipper was brought to perfection by Donald McKay of Boston, who built such vessels as the Flying Cloud, the Glory of the Seas, and the Lightning. U.S. and British clippers came to be known as China clippers because they utilized their speed to carry on a flourishing China trade in tea and opium. Clippers sailed from the U.S. Atlantic coast around Cape Horn to California in the days of the gold rush. They steadily reduced the time for their long voyages and held famous races. The clipper came into being only after its finally successful rival, the steamship, was engaging in transoceanic voyages. In the early days the clipper easily outran the plodding steam vessel, but, ironically, the improved steamship began to forge ahead even as some of the fastest and most beautiful clippers were being built. When the Cutty Sark, one of the swiftest and most celebrated British clippers, was completed at Dunbarton, Scotland, in 1869, the era of the commercial sailing ship had nearly come to an end.

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