Inventor & Consulting Engineer, 19th Century

b. 15 Nov 1804, Aberdeen.
m. 2 Apr 1835 to Margaret YOUNG, Glasgow.
d. 23 Jan 1876, New Wansted.

Uncle of Middleton RETTIE.

  • 1841 Census: Brass Founder at Gordon Street, Parish of Barony [later Glasgow], Lanarkshire.
  • 1851 Census: Consulting Engineer lodging at 124 Lauristoun Place, Parish of St Cuthberts, Edinburgh.
  • 1861 Census: Civil Engineer at New Wanstead, Parish of Wanstead, Essex, England.
  • 1871 Census: Inventor & Consulting Engineer at New Wanstead, Parish of Wanstead, Essex, England.


The estates of Robert RETTIE and Company, Brass Founders and Finishers, Felter Manufacturers, and Indigo Grinders, in Glasgow, as a Company, and Robert RETTIE, the sole Partner of that Company, as an Individual, were sequestrated on the 5th day of July 1841.
London Gazette, 9 Jul 1841.


Author of ‘On the necessity of employing one universal system of Marine Night Signals for preventing collision at sea and shewing distress at night’, published by T. W. Saunders, 1847.
Google Books

RETTIE’s Signal Lights

Portsmouth, Nov 23 – The Comet steam-vessel, Lieutenant-Commander W. Pretyman, went out of harbour yesterday afternoon about 4 o’clock, with Mr Rettie, civil engineer, on board, to make a trial at Spithead, by order of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, of the efficacy of the new signal-lights for preventing collisions at sea, the invention of the latter gentleman.

Nevertheless the result has been highly satisfactory; and there is no doubt but the correspondence which has been going on for years between this and other Governments, respecting the establishment of night signals upon one universal code, is now in a fair way of being brought to a most satisfactory conclusion, for no signals can be simpler or better adapted for adoption and universal comprehension than Mr Rettie’s.

Aberdeen Journal, 3 Dec 1845.

Marine Signals

Mr. R. Rettie, C.E., had elucidated, by actual experiment, the system of marine signals, of which he is the inventor. These signals received the approbation of the Tidal Commissioners at Woolwich in 1843; but in the case of Mr. Rettie, as of many of the world’s benefactors, the good he has done is not likely to be appreciated by his own generation. The Collision lamp consists of a bright eccentric burner, which, with the assistance of a reflector, sends a brilliant illumination through a circular glass in front, after the fashion of a magic lantern. When a vessel using that lamp wishes to show that she holds a straight course, the glass must be of the ordinary opaque colour; if her course is in the starboard direction, a red handle at the right hand being moved forward brings a red glass before the light; and when the direction is larboard, a green glass is brought in the same way from the left side over the whole surface. And, fourthly, if half of the surface be of a red colour, and the other half green, this is the anchor signal. These signals may be descried at a great distance, as the three colours of red, green, and white are the most distinct that can be furnished. The Distress signals are equally simple with the above, while they are at the same time abundantly explicit. In a steamer, a red lantern is to be suspended at the cross-trees, and a white one at the topmast – the colours red and white signifying or representing fire and water. Sailing vessels, again, are to use a green lamp at their cross-trees, and a white at the topmast – green and white showing their means of locomotion as contrasted with steam ships. While the great ends of perspicuity and simplicity are perfectly subserved by those signals, many smaller contrivances are combined with them which may not be seen without close study, but which at once stamp them with the seal of perfection, and declare them the work of a master hand. Although the invaluableness of an uniform system of signals must be evident to the veriest landsman, it will appear strange to those who know little of the fate of genius, that Mr. Rettie has not received a single order for his signals, although they have been well approved in high quarters; though, in disregard of this gentleman’s patent, the colours have been adopted, and the signals confused in various ways by different parties to suit their own ends, but to the great peril of strange vessels.
MARINE SIGNALS. (1850, April 17). The Courier (Hobart, Tas. : 1840 – 1859), p. 4. Retrieved June 2, 2013, from

Exhibitor at the Great Exhibition of 1851

159 RETTIE, R. Edinburgh, Inv. – Railway and Marine lamps, signals, life-boats, fire-extinguisher, breakwater, etc. Mining and ventilating apparatus.
Official Catalogue of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations 1851

Great Exhibition – Stormy Meeting of Exhibitors

Last night a public meeting of exhibitors of industry of all nations took place in St. Martin’s Hall, Long-acre.

Mr. RETTIE said he had [a resolution] to propose, and proceeded to stigmatise some of the parties present as fools, which called down upon him a burst of disapprobation, with cries of “Enough, enough.” He thought it unfair that parties had prizes who were known at Paris, but not in London. He moved as a resolution – “That the Royal Commissioners should be requested to make known the awards to successful exhibitors, in order that the public may be enabled to judge of the impartiality of their awards.” He expressed his determination to see justice done to the exhibitors, and his conviction that if all men had their deserts, he had a right to be rich instead of poor. (Cries of “Stop him, stop him.)
Mr. PENNY, an exhibitor of cloth, seconded the resolution.
Morning Post, 30 Aug 1851.

Questions in Parliament

House of Commons – Thursday, May 27.
On the motion of Mr McGregor – copies of all letters and answers thereto sent from the Admiralty to Mr Robert RETTIE, the inventor of the coloured lights system of signals; for saving collisions of vessels at sea, showing signals of distress; ships at anchor, etc., when in Scotland and England, since 1842 to 1852; when he was entered on board the navy in the books of the Rattler steam frigate, and at Woolwich and Portsmouth; where the various trials took place under the government of Sir Robert Peel; and of the various memorials to the Admiralty from the different ports and steam navigation companies for their adoption.
Aberdeen Journal, 2 Jun 1852.

See also Mr M’Gregor, Minutes of House of Commons: Petitions Presented (Hansard, 1848),


On Friday the 27th May, 1853, at Ten o’Clock precisely, before Mr. Commissioner Law.
Robert RETTIE, formerly of Westbourne Grove-cottage, Westbourne Grove, Bayswater, Middlesex, then of Belvedere House, Ham, Surrey, then of No. 14, Prospect-place, Wandsworth-road, Surrey, then of Aberdeen, then of Edinburgh, both in Scotland, and late of No. 7, Brompton-road, Knightsbridge, Middlesex, Consulting Engineer and Commercial Traveller.
London Gazette, 13 May 1853.

Letters to the Editor

Mr Gladstone has charged Lord Salisbury with inciting the people of Ulster to civil war. Now, Sir, when I was a youth in a W.S. office I had occasion to meet with Mr Robert Rettie, C.E., of Aberdeen, the inventor of the danger signals now so universally used, and which have proved such a safeguard to the travelling public, but I am not aware that he or his warnings have ever been denounced as the cause of accidents or mishaps. Lord Salisbury, as a wise statesman, recognising the imminent danger, warned the people of England and Scotland, who, I doubt not, will accept of and act on his prudent advice. Mr Gladstone again assures his followers of their certain success at the polls, but he was just as sanguine when he spoke in Hengler’s Circus on Tuesday, 22nd June, 1886.
Glasgow Herald, 4 Jul 1892.