Our History

John Scott Russell, Henry Wakefield, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Lord Derby at the launching of Great Eastern.

John Scott Russell, Henry Wakefield, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Lord Derby at the launching of Great Eastern.

On the 16th January 1860 a group of like-minded individuals met at the Hall of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce at Adelphi Terrace in London. Their aim was to form a society through which shipbuilders, marine engineers, ship owners, ship repairers and mariners could share their practical and scientific experience ‘for the purpose of advancing the science and art of Naval Architecture’.

For centuries the design of wooden ships had been seen as a craft with people learning through experience and keeping their knowledge to special groups, but the middle of the 19th century saw a huge change to British merchant shipping when various trade rules were repealed. The temporary halt of the Navigation Acts due to the Irish famine in 1845, the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, and the lifting of the Navigation Acts against the USA in 1849 all meant that Britain needed to respond to international trade competition.

Nowhere was the need for this more keenly felt than by those who operate, design and build ships. While steam technology had been adopted as an additional propulsion to sail early in the 19th century, this was still the era of sail with international trade being carried by clippers and local trade by various small sailing vessels. However, the middle of the century saw the adoption of new technologies such as more efficient engines (compound engines adopted in the 1850s), and new materials (composite hulls using iron to reduce the amount of wood needed) that meant that the science supporting this had to develop and the need for collaboration grew.

Naval Architects have a responsibility to advance the art and science of ship, boat and yacht design but we are only limited by our own imagination

Out of this exciting time a group gathered for a meeting at the house of the builder of the biggest ship of the era, the Great Eastern, John Scott Russell, at the tail end of 1859. The meeting included an academic, Dr Joseph Wooley who had recently run the School of Mathematics and Naval Construction at Portsmouth, Edward Reed who was at the time a journalist reporting technical aspects of ship design, and Nathanial Barnaby who worked for the Admiralty and was involved in designing Britain’s first Ironclad, HMS Warrior. That august body then gathered a few weeks later with others such as John Penn who owned one of the major steam engine companies, the Master Shipwrights of Chatham, Sheerness and Woolwich naval dockyards, as well as a maritime barrister and a couple of Lloyd’s surveyors.

Together they established The Institution of Naval Architects on 16 January 1860 to be a learned society through which shipbuilders, marine engineers, ship owners, ship repairers and mariners could share their practical and scientific experience for the common good. Reed would be the first secretary of the new Institution before becoming Chief Constructor for the Royal Navy, as which he would be succeeded by Barnaby. Wooley went onto establish the Royal School of Naval Architecture in South Kensington (now part of the Victoria and Albert Museum).

The need to share professional knowledge in the wake of the technical changes and changes in society has not reduced and RINA and its members remain at the centre of international maritime development today as the world adopts new technologies to tackle global challenges. The need to bring together a broad stream of those involved was clear from the new institution’s first article, with its stated aim to bring together “shipbuilders, ship repairers, marine engineers, shipowners, seagoing officers, yachtsmen, and others in kindred professions”. This remains the situation today and RINA is open to all those involved at all levels in the design, construction, maintenance and operation of all marine vessels and structures.

While remaining a specialist institution maintaining its emphasis on marine vessels and structures, membership has grown over time. At the time of the institution’s centenary in 1960, when its Charter was renewed, it had more than 4,000 members and now membership exceeds 10,000, spread across the maritime industry in more than 90 different countries, reflecting the international collaborative nature of the maritime industry as it deals with current challenges.

While not the first such organisation, the institution helped advance ship design at a time when industrialisation was facilitating enormous advances in the construction of vessels, transforming the role of the Naval Architect into that of a ‘total engineer’. An early contributor to the society was a protégé of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the renowned hydrodynamicist William Froude, whose paper On the Rolling of Ships, was presented at the institution’s second session of March 1861. Froude would prove hugely influential and with his associate Henry Brunel obtained funds from the Admiralty to build and establish the first test tank in 1872.

The issues facing today’s members such as digitalisation, artificial intelligence, autonomous vessels, net zero shipping, would have seemed like science fiction to our founders in 1860, but they would have understood the elements that remain at the heart of the profession: the drive to find ever more efficient means of operating vessels, which these day would be described as being environmentally friendly, and the need to keep ships safe both for those operating them and the impact they have on the environment around them as we continue to strive to “advance the art and science of ship design”.

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Membership numbers by year

The Royal Institution of Naval Architects received Royal Charter in 1910, having previously been known as the Institution of Naval Architects.




The number of members has increased dramatically from 324 in 1860, to 10,000 in 2022, in over 90 different countries.

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