Where the Titanic is concerned, the name Alexander Carlisle is not familiar to very many people outside of dedicated Titanic enthusiasts, a curious situation as Carlisle played a central role in the design and equipment of the Olympic-class ships.
Born in Ballymena, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, in 1854, he was educated at the Royal Academical Institution in Belfast, and became an apprentice at Harland and Wolff at the age of sixteen. His career at the shipyard spanned forty years, as he rose through the positions of draughtsman, chief draughtsman, under-manager, shipyard manager, general manager, and finally, in 1907, chairman of the managing directors, a position he held until his retirement three years later. In 1879, his sister Margaret married William Pirrie (the future Lord Pirrie), who had become a partner in the shipyard five years earlier. While it could be argued that there was a certain degree of nepotism in Carlisle’s rise through the corporate ranks at Harland and Wolff, the succession of successful designs in which he had a hand argues that he was a talented designer who prospered on the merits of his work. He was involved in some capacity in the design and construction of every ship the White Star Line ship ordered from Harland and Wolff before 1910–including the Olympic, Titanic, and Gigantic. He was the Head of the Drawing Department, essentially the shipyard’s chief architect, when the White Star Line’s “Big Four”–RMS Celtic, Cedric, Baltic, and Adriatic–were built; their design would serve as the basis for the three ships of the Olympic class.
It was Carlisle who insisted on the use of the Welin Quadrant Davits that carried the lifeboats on the Olympic and Titanic, which, he knew, had the capacity to handle up to four times the number of lifeboats that the Board of Trade regulations required in 1912. (He did so anticipating that the regulations would eventually be modified to require more boats–which they were, though not for reasons Carlisle expected!) And though he attempted to persuade Bruce Ismay to approve of as many as forty-eight standard lifeboats aboard each of the Olympic-class ships, rather than just the sixteen required by law, Carlisle didn’t press his case very vigorously, and Ismay, in an economy measure, overruled him.
After his retirement, Carlisle still made himself available to Harland and Wolff in an advisory capacity, though there is evidence of some personal friction between himself and Lord Pirrie that limited his contact with the shipyard. He gave evidence at the Board of Trade Inquiry into the loss of the Titanic, and dabbled in politics, being appointed to the Irish Privy Council in 1907. He died in London on 6 March 1926 at the age of 71.