Cameron, Robert Rupert Gibson (1903–79), naval architect, was born 24 October 1903 at Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim, second of three children of Gibson Cameron, a baker, and his wife Jane, daughter of Henry Beattie, master mariner of Carrickfergus. He was educated at Carrickfergus model (primary) school, gaining a scholarship to the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. In 1919, shortly before his sixteenth birthday, he left school having matriculated, to take up a ship-draughtsman apprenticeship in the Harland &Wolff (H&W) shipyard in Belfast. In 1921 QUB and the Belfast College of Technology set up a joint faculty of science and technology, which introduced courses for degrees by evening study alone, including one in naval architecture. Cameron was one of the first intake of students on this course, graduating in 1926.
In 1934 Cameron became the assistant to H&W's naval architect, T. C. Tobin, who like many senior staff remained in post beyond normal retirement age, retiring at the age of 77. In the meanwhile Cameron carried many of the responsibilities of the post from pre-war years, including a lead role in the design of the 25,688-ton Andes, delivered in September 1939. He became H&W's naval architect in 1953, joining the board of H&W in 1960 and finally retiring in 1970.
Cameron considered that a ship should not only satisfy the technical specifications: it should also look right. He deplored the increasing accountant-led approach of shipowners of tankers and bulk carriers, who were completely uninterested in the aesthetics of their ships. As with great buildings, which can be ascribed to a particular architect, it is equally true of the many ships designed by Cameron.
Successful design involves lateral thinking and also the ability to assess the consequences and the courage to go out on a limb. Cameron demonstrated this when Shaw Savill accepted a bid from H&W to build a passenger-only liner. He recognised the enormous advantages of positioning the machinery aft. Even though there was much opposition from conservative-minded naval architects, he went ahead and designed the hugely successful 20,204-ton Southern Cross, launched by Queen Elizabeth and delivered in February 1955.
The success of the Southern Cross started a vogue for ships with engines aft. Perhaps the pinnacle of Cameron's long career was the 45,270-ton Canberra built for P&O, the largest liner to have been built since the Queen Elizabeth. It incorporated for the first time 1,100 tons of aluminium in its superstructure, a bow propeller for manoeuvrability, and twin fin stabilisers. Dame Pattie Menzies, the wife of the prime minister of Australia, launched the Canberra on 16 March 1960, and it was delivered on 16 May 1961. After a long and successful career, including serving as a troopship in the Falklands war (1982), it went to the breakers' yard at the end of the twentieth century.
Besides many renowned ships designed by Cameron, he was also heavily involved in the design of supertankers, bulk carriers, and a floating oil platform. The problems he faced before the construction of a large building dock included building a floating oil platform on existing slideways, and extending a tanker under construction whose owners belatedly wanted it enlarged beyond the existing slipway's capacity. Cameron was faced with resolving the latter problem with the 190,000-ton-deadweight Myrina. His solution was to slide the 575-ft-long aft end, weighing 17,000 tons, with precision 121 ft 6 in. (37.033 m) down the slipway to allow the forward section to be constructed. When launched on 16 September 1967, this was the largest tanker to have been built in Europe. An even more complex problem was posed by the three-legged floating oil platform, the Sea Quest, which was built on three adjoining slipways. Though the Japanese did not consider it feasible, Cameron successfully launched it.
In his latter years Cameron was involved in the detailed specification and layout of the H&W building dock, which nominally could accommodate a tanker of 1 million tons deadweight, and also the associated new steel-working facilities and cranage. Even while the dock was being built, the construction of two 250,000-ton-deadweight tankers was under way. The dock was completed in 1970 when Cameron retired.
Shipbuilding was notorious as a tough industry run by tough and sometimes ruthless men of iron, but Rupert Cameron was a modest, unassuming gentleman, who attracted immense loyalty and support from his staff and colleagues. From 1970 to 1977 he repaid what he saw as a debt of gratitude to the Belfast College of Technology by serving as chairman of the board of governors. For his services to industry and naval architecture he was awarded an OBE in 1962, and an honorary D.Sc. by the Queen's University. He married (1934) Kathleen (d. 1965), daughter of Joseph Lattimore of Carrickfergus; they had one son. He died in Whiteabbey on 17 January 1979 at the age of 75.