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The Life of Sir William Fairbairn, Bart
Chapter XII - Miscellaneous Matters


The autobiography, which has formed the substance of the nine preceding chapters, extends no further, in any connected shape, than about 1810, when Mr. Fairbairn had completed his fiftieth year. Some notes remain, referring to matters of a later date; but they are fragmentary and incomplete, and can only be made use of as subsidiary explanations.

But although, in regard to that portion of his life and work which remains to be chronicled, we lose the benefit of his own interesting and vivid narration, we are fortunately not left altogether without guidance. Mr. Fairbairn was very fond of writing; nothing gave him greater pleasure than to put his ideas on paper; and hence, in regard to the later occupations of his life, there exists a mass of information from his hand, either published or in manuscript, which has served not only to facilitate the task of the biographer, but to render the accounts given authoritative and trustworthy.

In the present chapter it is proposed, in the first place, to give a brief notice of several miscellaneous matters, scientific and professional, which occupied Mr. Fairbairn's attention between his fiftieth and sixtieth years; and, secondly, to chronicle some few private and domestic events of interest that happened during the same period.

In 1840 Mr. Fairbairn was consulted regarding the best means to be adopted for draining the lake of Haarlem; and he appears to have devised an ingenious mechanical arrangement to facilitate the process; but no record of any report on the subject can be found.

In the same year he became one of the managing council of a society formed in Manchester under the presidency of the Right Hon. Lord Francis Egerton, called the Manchester Geological Society, and although not properly speaking a geologist, he contributed a paper to their meetings which was read on October 29, 1840, and was published the following year in vol. i. of their Transactions.

The paper was entitled 'On the Economy of raising Water from Coal Mines on the Cornish Principle.' It gave an account of the improvements made in the steam-engines for draining the mines of Cornwall, and the great economy of fuel resulting therefrom; and it advocated the introduction of similar improvements in the colliery districts. It was illustrated by drawings of the engine, and by copies of diagrams of the steam-pressure indicator.

Mr. Fairbairn continued to prosecute his experiments on the strength of cast-iron ; and in November, 1840, he read, before the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester, a second paper, entitled

'An experimental Enquiry into the Strength and other Properties of Anthracite Cast-iron, being a continuation of a series of experiments on British irons from various parts of the United Kingdom.'

This paper was published tn the same volume as the former one. and it gave an account of the extension of the trials to a new kind of iron that had been introduced into the market, named anthracite iron from its being prepared with anthracite coal.

The following letter from Sir. Fairbairn's fellow-worker in these important iron experiments will be interesting as showing the zealous and earnest part Mr. Fairbairn took in the investigations. The parts omitted refer to private matters.

Manchester, December 11, 1810.

My dear Sir,—Very many thanks for your kind letter of this morning. . . . The sentiments your liberality has inspired are deeply engraven upon my heart.

It is perhaps not less than a dozen years since I first availed myself of your (and your then partner's) kind offer to afford me the means of making experiments at your works. In that interval more experiments, of a really useful character, have been made there, either by yourself or me, than have been made at any one place in Europe in the time ; and when one considers that the expense has been wholly borne by yourself . . . your public spirit deserves the highest praise. This praise has been expressed to me a hundred times, and every man of science seems willing to join in it.

I had not expected that we should have parted so soon. We have both run for some years an interesting race for reputation in practical science, mutually indebted to each other; and though your name is now not bounded by Europe, it might have been (perhaps) no worse for either of us if it had been our lot jointly to investigate the steam-engine.

I should have gone to-day, but as the extra copies of thd paper on Pillars arrived at the same time with your letters of introduction, I thought they might be an auxiliary if taken with me, and I would stay till Monday and dispose of some of them. I have sent five for your use besides those which are addressed, and if you would like more I will send you any number.

Remember me with every sentiment of respect to Mrs. Fairbairn and your amiable daughter. Thank them for the kindness they have long shown to me, and believe me,

Ever yours,

Wm. Fairbairn, Esq. Eaton Hodgkinson.

Another letter, written by the same gentleman a little later, is in the same strain:—

March 10, 1842.

My dear Sir,—I have received the medals safe, which through your liberality in the encouragement of enquiries into practical science, I have had the honour to obtain. It will afford me very great pleasure to visit your hospitable lady and yourself on Monday at six. Mrs. II. is, thank God, somewhat better to-day, and if ever I saw a gleam of pleasure marked strongly upon her countenance, it was when she saw the medals which you have enabled me to obtain.

With every feeling of affection and gratitude, believe me, my dear Sir (both on her part and my own) most truly yours,

Wm. Fairbairn, Esq. Eaton Hodgkinson.

In 1841 Mr. Fairbairn was applied to, at the suggestion of the government, to give advice as to the best means of preventing accidents to workpeople in factories by their getting entangled in the machinery. It was considered advisable that mill-owners should be compelled to box or fence off all dangerous moving parts; but that the opinion of skilled persons should be taken as to how far this could be done without interfering with the convenience of working. Mr. Fairbairn gave the. required information at some length in a report to Mr. Heathcote, the local factory inspector, dated April 8,1841, and he encouraged the enforcement of the protection, if kept within reasonable bounds.

In 1842 he took out a patent (July 7, No. 9,409) for ' certain improvements in the construction of metal ships, boats, and other vessels, and in the preparation of metal plates to be used therein.'

The object of this invention was to avoid the weakening of wrought-iron plates due to the ordinary process of riveting. To prepare for this process it is necessary to punch holes in the edges of the plates to be riveted] by which of course the metal is considerably cut away, and much loss of strength ensues. To remedy this, Mr. Fairbairn proposed to roll the plates somewhat thicker on the edges, so that the holes being made in the thickened parts, the extra strength would compensate for the area removed by the holes.

This invention was partially carried into practice. An iron steamboat of some magnitude was built for the Admiralty on the system, and it was also used to some extent for locomotive boilers. But it has been found that the extra trouble and expense of getting plates specially rolled with the thickened edges are objected to, and hence the plan has not come into general application.

In 1842 aud the following year Mr. Fairbairn undertook some elaborate investigations on a subject that had often excited the attention of practical engineers, but on which very crude and indistinct notions appear to have generally prevailed, namely, the prevention of smoke from steam-engine boilers. At the meeting of the British Association at York, in September 1844, he presented a report ' On the Consumption of Fuel and the Prevention of Smoke,' which was published in the volume of Transactions for that year.

It begins by stating—

There is perhaps no subject so difficult, and none so full of perplexities, as that of the management of a furnace and the prevention of smoke. I have approached this enquiry with considerable diffidence, and, after repeated attempts at definite conclusions, have more than once been forced to abandon the investigation as inconclusive and unsatisfactory.

After alluding to the nature of the difficulties, the author adds:—

I shall endeavour to show, from a series of accurately-conducted experiments, that, the prevention of smoke, and the perfect combustion of fuel, are synonymous, and completely within the reach of all those who choose to adopt measures calculated for the suppression of the one and the improvement of the other.

He divides his essay under four heads of enquir :—

The analysis or constituents of coal and other fuels.
The relative proportions of the furnace and forms of boilers.
The temperature of the furnace and surrounding flues.
The economy of fuel, concentration of heat, and prevention of smoke.

All which are fully treated in the paper.

In the same year (1844) Mr. Fairbairn was called on, in the course of his professional business, to investigate a subject which occupied him for a long time afterwards, namely, the use of iron in the construction of large buildings.

The first occasion for this study was an application from Liverpool, where, for some years, an enormous loss of property had been sustained by fires in large warehouses. From 1795 to the end of 1842 this loss had amounted to two millions and a quarter sterling ; and the damage by one lire alone, in September 1841, was estimated at 380,000W. In fact, Liverpool had acquired an unenviable notoriety for the frequency and extent of the fires ; the character of the town had become stamped as insecure for the storage of merchandise, and the rates of insurance had been raised to such a pitch as to prove a most serious charge and embarrassment to the commerce of the port.

This led to an urgent demand for ameliorations in the construction of the warehouses, particularly by the free use of iron in place of timber. Hut as such an application of this material was to a certain extent novel, it was felt to be desirable that the opinion and advice of a thoroughly competent engineer should be obtained ; and at the end of March 1844 Messrs. S. and J. Holme, large builders and contractors of Liverpool, applied to Mr. Fairbairn to visit that town, and make a report on the matter, as they were about to erect a new warehouse of great magnitude, covering nearly an acre of ground. 'The subject,' said Messrs. Holme, 'is most important to the commerce of the town, as well as to many persons individually, and as we shall not like to take any steps in regard to the large pile, we shall esteem it a favour if you will name the earliest day in your power to visit Liverpool.'

Mr. Fairbairn paid the visit asked for, and made his report on June 3. He pointed out that fire-proof modes of construction had for some time been introduced for mills and factories, described their peculiarities, particularly in regard to the strength of the iron columns, girders, &c., and recommended the application of the same principles to the case of warehouses, concluding with the following remark:—

In my own mind there is not the shadow of a doubt as to the security of such a structure, and I do not hesitate to assert that a well-built and properly-arranged fire-proof warehouse can not only be constructed, but may be made to entail upon the commercial and manufacturing communities of this country an important and lasting benefit.

This report was thought so valuable to the Liverpool interests, that it was published, with introductory remarks by Messrs. Holme, for general circulation, and was reprinted in the 'Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal,' vol. xxxviii., 1845.

A few months later Mr. Fairbairn's attention was again directed to the construction of large buildings by a dreadful accident that occurred at Oldham. On October 31 a large cotton-mill in that town fell in with a tremendous crash, burying a number of work-people beneath the ruins, and destroying property to a very large amount. At the coroner's inquest the jury expressed a wish that the circumstances should be enquired into by Mr. Fairbairn, in association with a Mr. D. Bellhouse. This was done, and a joint Eeport, dated November 0, was presented at the adjourned inquest by the two gentlemen, who also gave viva voce explanations. They ascribed the accident to the weakness of some of the iron beams, which it appeared had been constructed without due regard to the mechanical principles determining their strength. The jury, in returning a verdict of accidental death, added ' their unanimous opinion that the causes of the accident were fully pointed out in the able report of Mr. Fairbairn and Mr. Bellhouse.'

At this time a Commission or Committee was sitting on Fire-proof Buildings, the Commissioners being Sir Henry de la Beche, the eminent geologist, and Mr. Thos. Cubitt, the well-known builder, of Piinlico. These gentlemen, hearing of Mr. Fairbairn's investigation of the Oldham accident, requested him to give evidence before them, which he did; but no report or publication of the proceedings of the body can be found.

A year or two afterwards he followed up the subject by a paper ' On some Defects in the Principle and Construction of Fire-proof Buildings,' read before the Institution of Civil Engineers, April 20, 1847, and published in vol. vi. of their Minutes of Proceedings. It was founded on an examination of another cotton-mill in Manchester that had fallen shortly before; and the paper pointed out that in this case, as at Oldham, the iron beams were far too weak for the load they had to sustain.

Some years later he published a book on this subject, which will be noticed in a subsequent place.

In 1847 Mr. Fairbairn was applied to by the authorities of the city of Basle to design a bridge for crossing the Rhine at that place. He accordingly made drawings and estimates of a bridge on the hollow girder principle. It was to be in several spans each 1U0 feet long, and was to cost 34,000/.

It does not appear, however, that anything further resulted from this offer.

In the second chapter of this work allusion has been made to the large use of iron bridges consequent on the great extension of railways that took place soon after 1840. Some of these structures proved faulty on trial, and some serious accidents occurred from their giving way. The conditions were to some extent new, on account of the vibrations and concussions to which the bridges were exposed by the passage over them of heavy trains, often at high speed ; and doubts were felt as to the state of engineering knowledge in regard to their design. This attracted the attention of government; and in August 1847 a Royal Commission was appointed 'for the purpose of enquiring into the conditions to be observed by engineers in the application of iron in structures exposed to violent concussion and vibration. The Commission consisted of Lord Wrottesley, Professor Robert Willis, Captain Henry James, R.E., Messrs. George Rennie, William (afterwards Sir William) Cubitt, and Eaton Hodgkinson, and Captain Douglas Galton, E.E., was the Secretary.

The Commission collected much information and examined many witnesses, among whom Mr. Fairbairn, from his large practice in ironwork, was one of the most prominent. He gave-evidence in November 1847, describing iron structures he had designed, stating his experience in regard to the properties of iron, and the mode of using it, and explaining his views as to the forms of iron beams, Ihe mode of testing them, the influence of vibration, &f&c. In a subsequent communication he gave useful suggestions for experiments, and furnished full particulars of the investigations he had made for the Britannia and Conway Tubular Bridges. Ihe Commissioners made their report in July 1819, in a Blue. Book which is well known, and often quoted when the properties of iron are in question.

In January 1849 Mr. Fairbairn read before the Institution of Civil Engineers a paper ' On Water-wheels with Ventilated Buckets,' which was afterwards published in vol. viii. of their Minutes of Proceedings. It contained an account of an invention originally introduced by him many years before, and which has been always admitted to be of great value.

In the course of manufacture of waterwheels for Catrine Bank and elsewhere, at an early period of his mechanical practice, Mr. Fairbairn had the opportunity of carefully studying their action and of making many improvements, the most important of which was an arrangement for what was called the ' ventilation of the bucket.' It had been found that difficulty had existed in getting the water to enter the buckets freely, particularly when the opening was contracted, as was often necessary. This difficulty arose from the fact that the air iti the bucket could not get away to make room for the water. Mr. Fairbaim saw that from this simple defect many large water-wheels lost an important proportion of their power; and he took steps to remedy the evil. His mode of doing so was .simply to construct a small passage opening upwards out of the bucket, by which, when the water entered, the air could rise and get away, and so leave the whole content free for the reception of the water. The following section of the buckets (taken from the published paper) will illustrate at a glance the nature of this simple and elegant contrivance. The arrows show the course of the escaping air.

VENTILATED BUCKETS FOR WATER-WHEELS.

It should be added that the same improvement which ensures the quick admission of the water also facilitates its quick discharge (an object also of much importance) by allowing the air to enter again into the bucket.

The first wheel constructed on this principle was at Handfortb, in Cheshire, in 1828. No patent was taken out for the invention; but the contrivance so much improved the action of the wheels as to acquire great notoriety, and to bring large orders to the firm. The arrangement was subsequently improved and extended to various classes of water-wheels, and full descriptions are given in the paper.

The following matters, of more personal interest, may be noticed in this place for the purpose of preserving the chronological arrangement of events in Mr. Fairbairn's life.

lie occasionally took pupils into his manufactory, which, from the care and knowledge with which it was laid out and worked, formed an excellent school for mechanical engineering. One of the young men so taken, the son of the celebrated founder of Mechanics' Institutions, Dr. Birkbeck, was also a frequent visitor at Mr. Fairbairn's house. The following extracts from the father's letters may be interesting :—

38, Finslmry Square, April 13, 1840.

Dear Sir,—On my visit to Millwall, I had a very satisfactory conversation with yonr partner, Mr. Murray; and your kind and liberal communication from Manchester has quite confirmed my favourable impressions.

I have decided, quite with my son's concurrence, that he should proceed to Manchester and enter your establishment there. I really hope that he will render himself worthy of the opportunity which he will enjoy of acquiring sound and varied practical information. He will, I think and hope, be greatly interested in the construction of the beautiful and splendid pieces of mechanism which must continually be in progress in your establishment; one of the most extraordinary, I understand, in the most wonderful school for mechanical invention in the world, the town and neighbourhood of Manchester.

If I mistake not, judging from the kind and rational remarks which you have made on the duties of young men destilled for a liberal profession, my son will be very likely to enter with great cordiality into your views.

I wish it was in my power to accept your invitation to visit Manchester; this is a pleasure, however, which must be deferred until the weather is a little more settled, and until, by the practice of taking exercise, not very convenient to me in winter, I may acquire strength and activity enough to cope with the demands which Manchester would make upon my curiosity and my exertion.

About thirteen years ago, on my return from a hasty journey into Yorkshire, Westmoreland, and Lancashire, I spent one day in Manchester. My friend Sir Benjamin Heywood kindly disposed of the principal part of my day, in which of course the Mechanics' Institution was not forgotten. If I once more return I shall be at your disposal in regard to this interesting object, and many others since brought into operation.

With great respect, I remain, my dear Sir, Very faithfully yours,

Win. Fairbairn, Esq. George Bikkleck.

38, Finsbury Square, January 18, 1841.

My dear Sir,—We all rejoice in the effects of my son George's residence under your superintendence. His feelings are better regulated in consequence of the influence of occupation, under kind and friendly control, and he has acquired a taste for industrious pursuits, which I am persuaded will benefit him through life. He speaks in the highest terms of yourself and Mrs, Fairbairn, and the rest of the family. I had formed, I confess, great expectations from this engagement, and it is no small gratification to me to feel that I have not in any respect been deceived or mistaken.

Dr. Birkbeck died in December of this year.

In September 1841 Mr. Fairbairn's daughter Anne was married to his young friend Mr. J. F. Bateman, au alliance which gave him great pleasure, lie was much attached to her, and from that lime, he often spent the leisure which he snatched from business with Mr. and Mrs. Bateman and their family, sometimes also accompanying them on tours and excursions either on the Continent or in the picturesque- districts of Great Britain.

The business connection of Mr. Bateman with his father-in-law in some important works in Ireland has already been mentioned. After that their communications on engineering matters were very frequent; and Mr. Bateman's previous engineering education and scientific tastes enabled him to be of considerable service to Mr. Fairbairn. Indeed for many years there was scarcely any engineering scheme or scientific investigation undertaken in which Mr. Bateman's assistance was not called in, until the time when Mr. Fairbairn's own sons grew up, and were able to render him efficient help in his business transactions.

In January 1846 Mr. Fairbairn's father died at the great age of eighty-six. The following letter, written to his wife on receiving the news, is characteristic:—

Millwill, January 17, 1814.

My dearest Dorothy,—I have this moment arrived from Paris and received the announcement of my poor father's demise. It came upon me unexpectedly, and although he had reached a good old age, yet I feel the stroke most severely, and can scarcely reconcile myself to the change. The last link which bound us to the last generation is now snapped asunder, and the many events of my childhood, with the endearing attentions of my good parents, rise up before me as fresh as on the days of their occurrence. Poor old man! I used to listen to him with great attention, and always admired his sound judgment, and above all his unflinching integrity, which was never absent under whatever circumstances he. was placed. I shall always cherish his virtues and look back with pleasure to the happy days I spent under his roof.

I feel my heart fill now they are gone, and although a father myself, I experience the weakness of a child at the bereavement I have sustained. I have been up for the last two nights, but I must move again by this evening's train to Leeds, and from thence join my brother at Newcastle, in order to perform the last sad duties to my excellent and affectionate parent.

Your very affectionate,

W. Fairbairn.

The following letter from an eminent but unfortunate artist will be read with interest, and shows the character Mr. Fairbairn had acquired for kindness of heart. It is no breach of propriety now to allude to the circum stances of the writer, for they have been but too clearly told in his published life.

14 Burwood Place, London, December 22, 1844.

My dear Mr. Fairbairn,—You once gave me hopes of an order.

Shall I make a proposition? Frank goes up for examination and his degree in a week or ten days, at furthest.

His fees are 15l., and his college bill 40l-. 14.s. 11d.=-56l. 14s. 11d.

I have brought him through all his terms but this last, and if this last be not paid up, he is ruined and will not have his degree.

I will paint you a small picture for that amount, or for any portion you will advance me at once. You were kind to Frank, and may feel an interest in getting him through.

I never broke my word about a picture in my life. Close at once and you shall have an ornament for your house.

I hope you and Mrs. Fairbairn and boys and all are well.

Mrs. and Miss Haydon's kind respects.

Yours truly, B. R. Haydon.

Mr. Fairbairn endorsed the letter: ' Answered February 15, with an order for a picture, value to be 30/.'

Poor Haydon did not break his word. One day, about the middle of June 1845, he called at the house, in London, of one of Mr. Fairbairn's relatives, and left au unfinished sketch in the hall, giving a hasty message for its care. On the 22nd of the same month he shot himself in his painting-room.

The picture, the subject of which is ' Christ before Pilate,' is still in the possession of Lady Fairbairn.

The pride Mr. Fairbairn took in his long friendship with George Stephenson has already been noticed. The following letter is curious, when it is recollected that at this time the two men's ages were fifty-eight and sixty-six respectively:—

Taptou House, January 5, 1847.

My dear Sir,—I have only this day received yours of January 1.

It will give me great pleasure to accept your kind invitation to Manchester when you return from Ireland. Should I find it convenient to do so, I will inform you in due time. In the meantime let me wish you and Mrs. Fairhairrn many returns of the season.

Now for the challenge to wrestle. Had you not known that I had given up that species of sport, you durst not have made the expressions in your letter you have done. Although you are a much taller and stronger looking man than myself, I am quite sure that I could have smiled in your face when you were laying on your back! I know your wife would not like to see me do this, therefore let me have no more boasting, or you might get the worst of it.

Notwithstanding your challenge,

I remain yours faithfully,

Geo. Stephenson.


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