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The Life of Sir William Fairbairn, Bart
Chapter X - Iron Ship-Building - River Bann - Experiments on Iron - The Riveting Machine


When Mr. Fairbairn entered on the sole charge of his business he appears to have turned his attention to a new branch of engineering manufacture. He reverts in his diary to the investigation he had made a year or two before, on the application of steam-power to canals, and he goes on to say:—-

The experiments and constructions above described were the precursors of that great department of our national industry, Iron Shipbuilding, from which this country has derived so much benefit, and to which mankind are indebted for that rapidity of ocean communication which distinguishes the steamers of the present time.

Although nothing could be done for the attainment of high speeds on canals, it was perfectly possible to open a useful steamboat communication between Glasgow and the towns on the eastern coast through the Forth and Clyde Canal. For this purpose I constructed an iron steamer, called the 'Manchester,' on the same principle as the 'Lord Dundas,' with the paddles at the stern; and having launched her on the Irwell, and fitted her with high-pressure engines of 40-horse power, she was tried on the Mersey with the greatest success, and had such speed that she steamed round the fastest boats then at Liverpool. She made the passage from Liverpool in a comparatively short time, and having been stationed on the canal, she carried on a regular and considerable traffic for a number of years between Port Dundas and the towns along the Firth of Forth up to Dundee.

The success which attended the 'Manchester,' her great strength, buoyancy, and lightness, and her qualities as a seaboat, pointed out the advantages to be derived from the use of iron, and induced the building of other iron vessels of greater burden. During the two succeeding years not fewer than eight vessels were built in sections at Manchester, taken to pieces, and reconstructed at the ports.

The system, however, of building ships of 100 to 250 tons burden in an inland town, taking them to pieces, and having to rebuild them at some convenient seaport, was in itself a process that could not be long maintained, and the only alternative left was either to abandon iron shipbuilding altogether as a business, or establish an entirely new concern for that purpose in Liverpool or London. The former town offered many advantages; but after mature consideration, London being the seat of government, and a railway communication having been determined on, I arrived at the conclusion that the metropolis held out more encouraging prospects for the formation and extension of this new business than Liverpool. Having foreseen from what had already been done that iron shipbuilding must of necessity increase, I came to the determination to establish works in London, and for this purpose I bought a plot of land at Millwall, Toplar, and with one of my own pupils, Mr. Andrew Murray, who was given a small share in the business, entered on the premises early in the year 1835. The following year we bad orders for twelve iron vessels for navigating the Oranges, for the East India Company, and four others for different parts of Europe.

About this time the subject began to attract much public attention. Others embarked in the trade, and we had to contend with a formidable opposition which was started against us by several shipbuilders on the Thames. This competition we had to light against for many years; but we were well supported by the Government and the East India Company, and by increased orders from abroad. We made many blunders as to prices &c. in a business which we had yet to learn, and the rapid increase of the demand for iron vessels, and the consequent necessary outlay and extension of the works in buildings, tools, &c. trenched so hard upon our limited capital as to hamper us for a long time. Unfortunately, also, I could not attend personally to the London establishment, as by doing so that in Manchester, of much greater importance, and which in fact created the other, would have been neglected. My young friend Murray, who was without experience, and had everything to learn, could not do much, and although he exerted himself to the utmost, it could hardly be expected that so young a man could exercise all the judgment and precaution of a person whose training had attained greater maturity.

In this situation I felt all the responsibility of both concerns. I was hurried backwards and forwards between Manchester and London for more than five years, without a moment's repose, and with a degree of mental strain and anxiety that would have broken down a constitution of less rigidity than my own. Nature has, however, supplied me with an elasticity of spirits which enabled me to throw oft' for a time the mortifications and anxieties attendant upon arduous undertakings; and having the power and determination to forget, in a change of scene or conversation, the cares and troubles of the moment, I found the greatest relief from such relaxations. Many were the times that, seeing no relief at hand. I have, from this buoyancy of disposition alone, returned with redoubled energy to the charge, mastered every difficulty, and given a new colouring and new features to the prospects before me. Thus constituted, I never for an instant gave way to despair. I was often disappointed; sometimes miserable, but never discomfited; and I attribute to this peculiar quality of temperament that constant desire to rise, and that never-tiring exertion, which carried me through troubles and difficulties apparently insurmountable.

In relating this part of my history I should be wanting in gratitude if I did not allude to the exertions of an excellent young man, Mr. John Elliot, now no more, who acted for several years in the capacity of foreman of the millwrights at Manchester, who assisted at the trials of the 'Lord Dundas,' and who ultimately was offered a small share in the works at Millwall.

During my residence at Medlock Bank, Manchester, I frequently received visitors in the evenings; among these were Mr. Elliot above mentioned, (whom I found exceedingly intelligent), Mr. Eaton Hodgkinson, Mr. Bennett Woodcraft, the scientific adviser of the Commissioners of Patents, and Mr. James Nasmyth, engineer, and inventor of the steam-hammer. The evenings were most agreeably spent—chiefly in philosophical and scientific discussions. Amongst other projects which at that time we had in contemplation, was the establishment of a quarterly publication, to be entitled 'The Workshop,' and intended chiefly for the working classes. The subjects to be treated of were the industrial and mechanical arts; mathematics as applied to them; biographical sketches of eminent men; and such other subjects as would interest, stimulate, and improve the class it was intended to benefit. It was further intended to give accounts of all the improvements, suggestions, and discoveries in the manipulations of the workshop—the origin and management of tools, the division of labour, and the rise and progress of inventions of every description within the reach of the editors and their contributors. Last but not least, a portion of the work was to be set apart for essays on domestic culture, moral improvement, and such other matters as would raise the character of the workman, correct dissipated habits, encourage economy, ensure self-respect, and render his domestic hearth attractive, instructive, and happy. All these objects the projectors of 'The Workshop' had in view; and I went so far as to write the introduction and prospectus, and some other papers.

As will readily be supposed, these papers, and the project altogether, were of a most sanguine description. We had some practice in our peculiar walks of life. My friend Hodgkinson was an able mathematician; Woodcroft was an original inventor; Nasmyth imaginative; Elliot cautious and persevering; and I myself with a slight mixture of the whole; so that there would have been a singular compound—a literary 'hotch-potch,' not perhaps very refined, but which might have been acceptable to those it was intended for.

Unfortunately the intentions of the projectors were never carried into effect. We were all of us well employed, and could not devote much time to such a pursuit. The arrangement and classification of the subjects, as far as they went, were satisfactory, but we never got beyond that point and the whole affair at last died away.

I was incessantly engaged in conducting my two large establishments in London and Manchester, where I had collectively upwards of 2,000 hands employed. "With such a business I could not have done much for 'The Workshop' if that publication had gone on. I could not, however, suppress the desire I always had of giving to the world such information as I had collected in the varied forms and pursuits of my profession. I confess that nature had endowed me with a strong desire to distinguish myself as a man of science. I was pleased to see myself in print, and the only fear I entertained was the imperfections of style, and the great difficulty I had to encounter in expressing my ideas in a clear and perspicuous manner. This was a difficulty I laboured hard to overcome, and I have up to the present moment no clear perception whether I am right or wrong in any composition in which I have been engaged.

The imperfection which I have just admitted, and which, like Meg Merrilies to Dirk Hatterick, has always been a 'rock a-head,' has not, however, deterred me from attempting, every now and then, to launch my uncouth barque amongst a host of critics on the sea of literature; for almost every year from 1834 to the present time I have had some communications, or scientific enquiry, ready for the press.

Although Mr. Fairbairn's chief practice lay in the mechanical branch of the profession, he did not confine his attention exclusively to that subject; for we find him, at this period, undertaking several engineering matters of a more general nature.

In 1832 he was desired to examine the drainage of a fen district called Soham More, near Ely, in Cambridgeshire. He found the existing arrangements imperfect, and he reported, on March 23 in that year, explaining the. facts, and making recommendations for the improvement of the drainage operations.

In 1835 he was engaged by the mill owners on the River Bann, in County Down, Ireland, to examine the locality, and to report on the best means of improving the water-power. Numerous linen factories had been established on the river, but they were much hampered by the irregularity of the stream. In dry seasons there was not water enough to work the wheels, while during rains the floods were so great as to drown the machinery, and often do much mischief.

Mr. Fairbairn undertook the commission, associating with him in the work a young engineer, Mr. John Frederic Biiteman, who had commenced business in Manchester shortly before, and with whom he had formed a friendship. Mr. Bateman afterwards married his daughter, and attained to high eminence in the profession. They examined the district together, and in January 1836 Mr. Fairbairn made a report, which, from its importance to the industrial interests of the district, he was requested to get printed for general circulation. The title was:—

'Reservoirs on the River Bann, in the County of Down, Ireland, for more effectually supplying the Mills with Water.' Manchester, printed by Robert Robinson, St. Anne's Place. 1836.

It was prefaced by an address 'To the Noblemen and Gentlemen of the County of Down, and particularly those interested in the improvements of the River Bann districts, and connected with the proposed Reservoirs for supplying the Mills with Water,' in which the author urged the benefits that would arise from the improvement of the industrial resources of the country. In the report itself he showed that the measures for the cure of the evils complained of should consist of the formation, on the course of the stream, of large reservoirs, which would catch and impound the excess of water in lime of floods, allowing it to be distributed down the stream in dry seasons, in aid of the natural scanty flow at those times. He pointed out three sites where such reservoirs could be made, and gave an estimate of the probable cost of their construction. He further examined, economically, the alternative plan of providing steam-power, and showed that the reservoirs would, in the end, be cheaper by the large sum of 7,000/. a year.

The report went fully into the scientific calculations of rainfall, evaporation, water-power, &c., bearing on the question, and was illustrated by a large map showing the works proposed, and signed jointly by Mr. Fairbairn and Mr. Bateman.

The recommendations of the report were adopted by the mill proprietors; funds were raised, and the works were afterwards successfully carried out, the detailed designs and construction being entrusted, at Mr. Fairbairn's wish, entirely to Mr. Bateman,

About the same time Mr. Fairbairn made an enquiry of a very similar character in regard to the River Don, in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. He reported to the mill proprietors in November 1835, also recommending the construction of reservoirs on the stream. But this proposal does not appear to have borne any fruit.

In 1835 Mr. Fairbairn took part in an investigation of great scientific and mechanical importance, and with which his name has ever since been honourably associated; — namely, the determination on a large scale, and with great accuracy, of the strength and other mechanical properties of cast iron. The previous knowledge on the subject was limited, and great uncertainty existed as to the effect which had been produced by the introduction, a few years before, of the new process of manufacture by the hot blast. Some iron-masters, in one part of the country, had come to the conclusion that the new process greatly deteriorated the quality of the iron produced; while others from other neighbourhoods maintained, on the contrary, that no deterioration resulted from the process, which was admitted by all to diminish the cost of production.

These widely differing opinions, both expressed by persons largely connected with the manufacture of cast-iron, were brought to the notice of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, at their meeting at Dublin, in September 1835, and the Committee resolved to submit the whole question to the joint investigation of Mr. Eaton Hodgkinson and Mr. Fairbairn. Mr. Hodgkinson had previously been engaged in making experiments at Mr. Fairbairn's works, and he afterwards acquired great eminence for his scientific investigations on the strength of materials. The resolution was as follows:—

That Messrs. Hodgkinson and Fairbairn be requested to undertake a series of experiments on the difference of strength and other mechanical properties of iron obtained by the hot and cold blast, under similar circumstances as to the nature of the coal employed, and from the same manufactory ; and that a sum not exceeding 30l. be placed at their disposal for that purpose.

The preparations for the enquiry, the collection of samples, &c., occupied more time than had been anticipated; and at the Bristol meeting, in 1836, the matter was re-considered, and an additional sum of 60/. was granted for expenses.

It appears that during the course of the investigation Mr. Fairbairn had the opportunity of making many trials of the properties of cast-iron generally, independently of the special instructions from the Association; and, not wishing that the results thus obtained should be lost, he gave an account of them in a preliminary paper which he read, on March 7, 1837, before the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester, and which was afterwards published (1842) in vol vii. of their Transactions. It is entitled..

'An experimental Enquiry into the Strength and other Properties of Cast-iron, from various parts of the United Kingdom.' By Mr. William Fairbairn.

It contains accounts of experiments on thirty-nine samples of cast-iron, twenty-two being of English, fourteen of Welsh, and three of Scotch manufacture. They were tried for what is called transverse strength. A bar, one inch square, was cast from each kind of iron, and placed horizontally on supports 4ft. 6in. apart. A weight was then hung on the middle point of the bar, and was gradually increased till the bar broke, the deflection and elasticity of the bar being carefully noted at the different stages of loading. The results were all carefully tabulated, and useful remarks were added on the practical qualities of the various kinds of iron.

At the Liverpool meeting of the British Association in September 1837, reports were submitted having more formal reference to the enquiry ordered by that body. It appears that when the two investigators began to work, they found that it would be more convenient to divide their labours. It was proposed to test the strength of the various kinds of iron in three ways, namely—1. By tension, or tearing the metals asunder in the direction of their length. 2. By compressiem, or crushing. And 3. By transverse strain. Mr. Hodgkinson undertook the two former of these, and Mr. Fairbairn the third, and each experimenter reported to the Association separately on his branch of the subject, the two reports being printed in the Eeport of the Association for that year, vol. vi.

Mr. Fairbairn's report is entitled :—

'On the Strength and other Properties of Cast-iron obtained from the Hot and Cold Blast.' By W. Fairbairn, Esq.

It gives elaborate accounts of numerous experiments, conducted generally in the same way as described in his earlier paper, but directed more especially to the comparison of the two kinds of iron, the result being that on the average of the whole but little difference existed between them.

In addition, however, to the main question submitted for investigation, Mr. Fairbairn voluntarily undertook two collateral branches of enquiry; first as to whether, when the loading was long continued, any appreciable weakening of the metal took place; and, secondly, to what extent the strength of the iron was affected by variations of temperature. On the first point he summed up his results with the following pithy sentence :—

It is now upwards of fifteen months since the bars were charged, and if we are to judge from the hardihood displayed in their resistance to the load, there is every probability of the experiments outliving the experimenter.

The results of the temperature experiments were too complicated to admit of brief summary.

The Association, at this meeting, resolved that the experiments should be further prosecuted, and should be extended to wrought-iron, granting another 100/. for expenses; and the names of Professor Willis and two other gentlemen were added to the committee; but we do not find that Mr. Fairbairn published, or attached his name to, any further report on the subject to the Association.

About this time Sir. Fairbairn introduced an invention which has been of the greatest utility iu engineering manufacture—namely, the riveting machine. He gives the following account of its origin:—

I have before alluded to a circumstance which occurred at this time, namely, the stoppage of a part of the works at Manchester by a strike of the boiler-makers. For some time previously we had been busily engaged in the construction of boilers, and nothing could have been more injurious than the stoppage of the works at such a time. I remonstrated with the men, but without effect; and perceiving no chance of coming to terms in any reasonable time, I determined to do without them, and effect by machinery what we had heretofore been in the habit of executing by manual labour.

In arranging this Mr. Fairbairn took into his counsels his assistant-engineer, Mr. Robert Smith. Two plans were proposed, one to act on the rivet by a lever (on the principle of the ordinary punching machine), the other to compress it by a screw Mr. Smith was in favour of the latter plan, and wished to make drawings of a new machine on that principle; but Mr. Fairbairn says :—

I replied that the screw would be too slow; and before any further steps were taken, I insisted on making a trial with the punching-machines which were in daily use.

This was done on the following day, and Mr. Smith produced as fine a specimen of riveted work as I have seen either before or since. This was the origin and history of the riveting machine, which so much improves the quality and reduces the price of labour in this important branch of mechanical construction.

Previous to the experiment made with the punching machine, which was accomplished by the simple introduction of two steel dies corresponding with the ends of the rivet, it was argued that compressed rivets would never be tight, that they would become loose and spoil the work; and many other objections were brought against the project by persons interested in the maintenance of the old process. To these, and also to the threats that were held out by the workmen, I turned a deaf ear; and after the first trial I was fully convinced that the principle was sound, and that we had nothing to fear from one or the other. Having convinced myself of the practicability of this new invention, a patent was taken out for it; and as Mr. Smith was the person first to accomplish the task, it was taken out in his name, but at my expense, and he was given an interest in it.

The patent, in the name of Robert Smith, is dated February 16,1837 (No. 7,302), and entitled 'Certain Improvements in the means of connecting Metallic Hates for the Construction of Boilers and other purposes.' It gives a full description and drawings of the riveting machine, and it claims 'the manner of connecting metallic plates for the construction of boilers and other purposes, by riveting them together by compression obtained by the aid of machinery'

Mr. Fairbairn continues his account:—

The new machine effected a complete revolution in boiler-making and riveting, and has substituted the rapid and noiseless work of compression for the eternal din of the hammer; besides making the work infinitely superior in quality and strength.

The introduction of the riveting machine gave great facilities for the despatch of business. It fixed, with two men and a boy, as many rivets in one hour as could be done with three men and a boy in a day of twelve hours on the old plan; and such was the expedition and superior quality of the work, that in less than twelve months the machine-made boilers were preferred to those made by hand, in every part of the country where they were known. This success was not attained without opposition; and, as happens in all similar cases, I had not only to contend against modifications and improvements, but I had to combat prejudice and opposition from quarters where it was least expected. The patent, however, expired some years since, and the machine is now in general use; and I have reason to be satisfied that it has not only answered the purpose intended, but has been of use to the public in the development of a new and important principle in the constructive arts.


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