Williams, Charles Wye (1779–1866), shipping magnate and inventor, was born in Dublin, second of two sons of Thomas Williams (1748–1832), secretary of the Bank of Ireland, and Mary Ann Williams (née Quin or Quine), both of Dublin. Educated by private tutors, Charles later studied law and was called to the Irish bar at the King's Inns in 1812, but there is no evidence that he ever practised. Instead, his main interest lay in the fields of science and machinery, for which he pursued an independent course of study that involved extensive reading and attending lectures. In his early twenties he became an acting partner in a linen bleaching company in the Lagan valley (1799–1809), for which he oversaw the construction of a new mill (1806–7). From the beginning he proved himself an innovator and a risk-taker: he was the first person to introduce the ‘beetling’ finishing process to the Irish linen industry and was also the first, despite massive resistance, to institute cast-iron gearing in his mill in place of the traditional wooden fixtures. About this time, he became friends with John Oldham (qv), inventor and engineer to the Bank of Ireland, who in 1819 had hopes of developing a type of steam propulsion for ships. Intrigued, Williams funded his endeavour and helped secure a patent, the result being a primitive paddle wheel, which was later perfected by William Morgan and became known as the Morgan wheel. However, the marine steam engine was born and Williams immediately recognised the possibilities offered by this new efficient and comparatively inexpensive propulsion system. In the face of criticism for being reckless and brazen, he took a chance and founded the Charles Wye Williams Company (1823) to ship goods and passengers from Dublin to Liverpool; it was later reorganised as the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company (1825), the first steam cargo service between Dublin and London, with himself as managing director. Thus began his long and distinguished career as the most important and influential shipowner of his generation.
His business was immediately successful, and by 1830 he had twelve ships transporting people, grain, fresh butter, and livestock between Dublin and Liverpool. In 1827 he expanded shipping to Bordeaux, France, and in 1836 he formed a subsidiary, the British & Irish Steam Navigation Company. Although rival companies soon emerged, they were no competition for his well run firm and his well maintained vessels. He vigorously and rapidly expanded trade across the Irish Sea, and by 1850 he had twenty-six steamers. Ever concerned about developing Irish resources and relieving poverty and unemployment, he soon ventured into inland trade, establishing the Inland Steam Navigation Company (1829) in the belief that opening up the Shannon would help alleviate distress by creating more trade links between England and the back parts of Ireland. He campaigned for government money to fund the river's upkeep, wrote an influential pamphlet on the importance of improving Shannon navigation (1832), and later gave evidence on the same before a parliamentary commission (1835); all contributed to the government's decision to give £500,000 towards a Shannon improvement scheme, and Williams received universal acclaim for his role in improving his country's chief waterway and for extending Irish trade. In 1838 he set his sights on overseas shipping and formed the Transatlantic Steamship Company; his first ship left Liverpool for New York on 5 July 1838, but after several crossings the company proved an unprofitable venture and was merged with the recently created Peninsular Steam Navigation Company (1838) with the view of shipping to the Mediterranean and India. In 1840 it became the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (forerunner of the modern day P&O), arguably the most powerful and influential steamship company of the nineteenth century, shipping goods to places as faraway as China and Australia. He was given a seat on the board and retained a financial interest until 1854.
Williams's success was due in part to the fact that he was very good at organising the companies in which he was involved, but also because he constantly applied his scientific knowledge to improving shipping technology. In the 1830s he permanently settled in Liverpool and made that city the centre for maintenance and repair of all his ships. At his residence, ‘The Nook’, St James's Mount, he set up a laboratory to carry out experiments on increasing engine efficiency, improving combustion, and reducing smoke, whereby he was able to increase the power of his engines. He proved to be a competent inventor and successfully applied for twelve patents, including ones for reducing engine pollution, bettering ventilation, and improving the production of sheet iron for boilers and vessels. He frequently published on scientific and social topics and presented numerous papers to various societies and institutions. His most famous was The combustion of coals and the prevention of smoke chemically and practically considered (1840), which was well received, and reprinted several times and later translated into French; his 1856 publication on smoke prevention won him a gold medal from the Society of Arts. He was made an associate member of the Institution of Civil Engineers (16 June 1835) and of the Institute of Naval Architects (1862). In 1860 he gave up control of the Dublin Steam Packet Company and by 1862 his inland navigation company had folded (presumably due to the progress of the railways), so Williams effectively retired. He died at The Nook on 2 April 1866 and was buried in Liverpool's St James's Mount cemetery.
Although his public life was extremely successful, he suffered from numerous personal tragedies. His first wife was Mary Henry (m. 1820; d. 11 January 1826). His eldest son, Thomas Alexander, died at the age of 17 after a short illness in Madeira (April 1840), and his youngest son died at the age of nine months (5 March 1826). Williams's second wife was Frances (c.1800–2 March 1898).