The Life of Sir William
Fairbairn, Bart Chapter XV - Scientific Honours
The publication of Mr. Fairbairn's work on the
great bridges formed a culminating point in his life; and the controversies
which took place on the subject, although they caused him much annoyance at
the time, were not without advantage to him, inasmuch as they brought his
name more prominently before the world, and called more general attention,
not only to the part he had taken in the works in question, but to his
distinguished position generally as a mechanical engineer.
The appreciation of his merits was manifested
immediately by some honours being paid him of very high character.
The first of these was his admission into the
Royal Society of London. This society elects fifteen members every year, who
are selected carefully by the council, out of a large number of candidates,
on account of eminent scientific merit; and consequently the fellowship of
the society is a high distinction.
The proposal appears to have originated with the
late Mr. George Rennie, who, writing to Mr. Fairbairn on December 4, 1819,
Few men would have a better chance, as your name
and reputation are too well known to the world at large to permit of any
doubt of your success. I will desire the assistant secretary to send you a
printed form to be filled up, and to be sent round to your friends for
signature, in which I will assist, although I am precluded from signing it
The form, or certificate, as it is called, was
ultimately filled up as follows:—1
William Fairbairn, Engineer, Manchester, author
of numerous papers which have been from time to time published in the
Transactions of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, in
the Memoirs of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester, and the
Transactions of Institution of Civil Engineers. These papers embrace an
enquiry into the comparative strength of hot and cold blast iron, an
extended investigation of the strength and other properties of all the irons
of Great Britain, and of the Samakoff Turkish iron; an Essay on the
Combustion of Fuel, on the most Economical Method of Raising Water from
Mines, &c. The author also of a work descriptive of the Conway and Britannia
Tubular Bridges, and containing also an experimental research to determine
the law which governs the strengths, &c., of Wrought-Iron Tubular Bridges
and Girders;—being desirous of admission into the Royal Society of London,
we, the undersigned, propose and recommend him as deserving that honour, and
as likely to become a useful and valuable member.—Dated this 31st day of
It was signed by the following names, among
which many will be recognised as of great scientific eminence :—
Henry Holland, Henry Moseley, John Rennie, J.
Walker, W. Cubitt, Joshua Field, James Booth, F. Beaufort, W. C. Mylne, G.
R. Porter, Robert Willis, John Barrow, Charles Babbage, Andrew Ure, William
The council included Mr. Fairbairn's name in the
selected list of candidates; and he was elected into the Society, June 6,
Within a year after Mr. Fairbairn's election
into the Royal Society another honour was paid him, which was still more
distinguished, on account of the very few of his countrymen on whom it has
been bestowed—that of admission into the National Institute of France. As
the nature and constitution of this body are not generally known in this
country, a few explanatory words may be in place here.
The Institute of France was founded by the
Republic on the 5 Fructidor (August 22), 1795, its declared object being :—
I. A perfectionner les sciences et les arts par
des recherclies non interrompues, par la publication des decouvertes, par la
correspondance avec les societes savantes et etrangeires. 2°. A suivre,
conformeraent aux lois et arretes du Directoire executiffl les travaux
scientifiques et litteraires qui auront pour objot l'utilite generale et la
gloire de la Republique.
It was confirmed by Bonaparte some years later;
and again by Louis XVIII. in 1816, and by Louis Philippe in 1832.
The body termed 'l'lnstitut de France' comprises
five 'Academies,' the constitution of which is as follows :—
1. L'ACADfiMIK FRANfAISK.
This consists of forty members chosen from the
most eminent literary and public men of the kingdom.
2. L'ACAIlfiMIE DES INSCRIPTIONS et BELLES LETTRES.
This consists of men eminent in antiquarian and
polite literature, and the members are :—
3. L'Academte des Sciences.
This is divided into eleven sections, and the
numbers of members of different grades are :—
Geography and Navigation 3
General Physics 6
Rural Economy 6
Anatomy and Zoology 6
Medicine and Surgery 6
Acadrmirien Libres 10
Associates Strangers 8
Geography and Navigation 8
General Physics 9
Rural Economy 10
Anatomy and Zoology 10
Medicine and Surgery 8
When a vacancy occur by the death of any
academician, a list of at least three names is drawn up and presented to the
Institute by the Academy in which the vacancy arises, and the choice between
them is made by the general body. The corresponding members in each Academy
are elected by that Academy, on the presentation of a list by the section in
which the vacancy occurs.
In the middle of the year 1851, a. vacancy
occurred among the corresponding members of the Mechanical Section of the
Academy of Sciences by the death of Sir Mark Isambard Brunel. Mr. Fairbairn
had previously made the acquaintance of some influential members of the
Institute, among whom were Generals Foncelet and Morin, Baron Dupin, and M.
Arago; and on the encouragement of these and other friends, he decided to
offer himself as a candidate. He went to Paris in September, and shortly
afterwards sent over full particulars of his claims, accompanied with the
following letter to General Poncelet:—
Manchester: October 1, 1851.
Dear General Poncelet,—The interest you have
taken in wishing me to become a candidate for admission as a corresponding
member of the Institute of France, induces me to lay before you a brief
statement of facts in connection with my past and present history. I would
not have ventured to aspire to the dignity but for the encouragement I
received from yourself and M. Arago; nor is it my intention even now to
present myself before the members of the Academy unless well supported by
friends who may consider me worthy of such a distinction. I have no doubt
there will be found many claimants of higher standing and much greater
learning than myself, entitled to such an honour, but I should deem myself
ungrateful, after the encouragement I have received, if I did not lay before
the Academy a list of my qualifications, with copies of such as I have in my
possession, which I now forward for acceptance by that distinguished body.
I have further drawn up for your guidance a
short account of my early history, and a brief statement of my endeavours to
be useful in my professional capacity, and the advancement of practical
science. Iu these attempts I have laboured under an imperfect education, and
many other disadvantages, which nothing but an indomitable perseverance
could overcome. IIow far I have been successful I must leave my works to
determine; and all I have now to offer is (in case of my election) the same
determined spirit to be useful to the Institute of France, as I humbly trust
I have been to the Institutions I have been connected with in this country.
Yours faithfully and obliged,
The Academy named a commission of three members
to investigate Mr. Fairbairn's claims; and, the result of this being
satisfactory, an official letter was addressed to him as follows:—
Paris, le 13 Novembre, 1851.
Mon cher Monsieur,—II y a eu ce moment une
vacance de Membre Correspondant de la Section de Mecanique a l'Academie des
Sciences a Paris.
Les giands et beaux travaux que vous avez
diriges et executes vous mettent au nombre des personnes sur lesquelles doit
se porter la pensee de l'lnstitut. Je vous prie done de me faire savoir si
votre intention est de vous porter comme c.mdidat en titre de Membre
Correspondant de l'Academie des Sciences (Section de Mecanique), et dans le
cas de l'afErmativa, de m'euvoyer Be note des principaux travaux sur
lesquels s'appme-rait votre candidature.
Recevez, Monsieur, l'expression de la haute
consideration de votre devoifl serviteur, I'Jk Colonel d'Artillerie, Membre
de l'lnstitut, AdminH trateur du Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers,
Monsieur Wm. faAKBAiKN.
This letter was answered in due course, but the
stirring political events of the end of the year so interrupted the even
course of routine business that nothing was done towards the elections for
some months. Many vacancies had occurred, and the French members had to be
elected before the claims of the Corresponding members could be entertained.
Mr. Fairbairn, however, continued to receive strong expressions of support,
from his distinguished friends, as is shown in the following interesting
letter from one of the greatest mechanics of the age :—
Paris, la 4 Fevrier. 1852.
Mon cher et tr&s estime Collegue,—Mon long
silence n'aurait aucune excuse legitime, sans les evenements politiques qui
sont venus nous surprendre. D'tme autre part, lors de vos premieres
communications et de l'envoi de vos nombreux titres aux suffrages de
l'lnstitut, la plupart de mes eollegues de la section de mecanique etaient
absente de Paris, et il afaliu attendre leur retour pour les mettre au
courant de notre projet d'election, sans trop en brusquer le denouement et
leur faire penser que notre parti etait pris et arrete a l'avance.
Aujourd'hui, malgre les evenements, les choses sont beaucoup plus avancees,
et j'ai tout bien de croire que votre nom sera porte en tete de la liste des
candidates de la section de mecanique.
A l'egard de vos titres et des divers travaux de
votre labo-rieuse earri£re, ils seront, vous ponvez en etre sur, apprecies a
leur juste valeur. Pour moi, je les trouve, en tous point?, dignes des
suffrages de l'Academie des Sciences, soit au point de vue pratiepie, soit a
celui de l'invention et des recherches experi-mentales entreprises en vue
d'eclairer la science de construction. Vos immenses travaux comme ingenieur
et constructeur, votre ingenieuse machine a river, et la maniere dont vous
avez su, l'un des premiers, assouplir la tole et en propager l'emploi dans
l'industrie manufacturiere, et les grandes constructions nautiques, sont
dignes de la plus haute estime. Knfin je suis tout a fait de l'avis du I)r.
Ure quant aux eloges qu'il donne a votre systeme d'etablissement des arbres
de commande dans les filatures, &c.
Votre bel ouvrage sur les ponts tubulaires ne
laisse rien a desirer a cet egard [vos droits comme inventeur et perfection-neurj;
j'en 'lirai ant,ant de votre machine a. river, et de vos constructions de
roues hjdrauliques, ou chacun appreciera les belles dispositions adoptees;
neanmoins pour les hommes tels que moi alles pen au courant du progrtte que
les constructions de ce genre ont reyu en Angleterre, il serait utile de
connaitre la tili£re historique des idees. Au Bujet de vos grandes et belles
roues a augets courbes ventiles a systeme de suspension, je trouve des
renseignements precieux dans le memoire que M. Ferey a bien voulu me
remettre de votre pait, et dont je vous adresse mes bien sincfoes
remerciments. Vos syst£mes de construction sont sans contredit superieurs a
ceux qui avaient, j usque-la, ete employes, et je les crois tres propres a
rendre les services auxquels il sont destines ; cependant je ne pense que
l'evacua-tion de l'air en dehors les augets soit le seul obstacle oppose a
Pintroduction de l'eau dans les augets, et que par consequent le moyen de
ventilation si simple que vous employez soit le dernier mot de la question.
D'apres des etudes tres anciennes que j'ai faites de cette question, le
rapport des vitesses de la roue et de la veine d'eau, les angles des augets
et de cette veine avec la circonference exterieure de la roue doivent
exercer aussi une tres grande influence, et c'est dans cette vue que j'ai
imagine des dispositions nouvelles, pour les roues en dessus et de cote, qui
different beaucoup de tout ce que 1'on avait imagine jusqu'a present, outre
que j'ai eu aussi en vue une acceleration de vitesse.
11. Poncelet added a lucid description of his
improvements in water wheels, illustrating it with sketches. These
improvements have now long been known, and have become highly appreciated
among engineers, for their elegant scientific merit and their practical
utility; but the description is too technical for insertion here.
A little later, another great mechanic wrote :—
Paris, le H Mar», 18o2.
Mon cher Fairbairn,—J'ai tarde bien longtemps a
vous ecrire au snjet de 1'affaire qui vous inteiesse ici, parce que je
voulais pouvoir vous en donner quelques nouvelles certaines. Apre8 des
pourparlers assez longs, et difficiles, nous sommes parvenus, JIM. Dupin,
Poncelet et moi, a faire decider par la section de mecanique que vous seriez
presente pour etre nomme membre correspondant de l'lnstitut avec MM.
Babbage, Hodgkinson et Willis; mais que la section declarerait que dans
l'etat actuel des besoins de la science elle demande que vous soyez choisi. M. Dupin
se charge de faire le rapport.
Votre bien affectionne,
The final proceedings are detailed iu the
following letters, which are given verbatim, as they were written in English
by the great man whose signature they bear.
Paris, May 1852.
Dear Sir,—Monday last I had the honour and
pleasure to read my report, in the name of Mechanics' Section of the
Institute of France, to propose the candidates for the place of
correspondent, vacant by the death of Sir M. I. Brunei.
I have been happy enough to obtain that your
name should be the first of all candidates.
I can say you that I have been quite
enthusiastic with the study of your numerous and so meritorious works and
inventions; the picture of them did strike the whole Academy with
I hope next week to be able to write again to
you a letter announcing your election as our worthy Correspondent, and
nobody will be more happy for that result than I shall be.
I am, Sir, Your most devoted servant,
Baron Chaples Dipln.
Paris, May 11, 1852.
Dear Sir,—I rejoice very much in giving .to you
notice that you have been elected to-day Correspondant of the National
Institute of France, and your majority has been enormous, thirty-seven
I am, dear sir, Your most devoted colleague and
Barox Charles Ditiv
The official announcement of the election was as
Institut de France. Acaldie des Sciences, Paris,
le 11 Mai, 1852.
Le Secretaire perpetuel de l'Academie pour les
Monsieur,—J'ai l'hunneur de vous adresser
1'extrait ci-joiut du Proems-verbal de la seance du Mardi 11 Mai, dans
laquelle l'Academie vient de vous nommer l'un de ses Correspondants pour la
Section de Mecanique, en remplacement de feu Mr. Brunei.
En vous offrant ce titre comme un temoignage de
son estime, l'Academie vous invite, Monsieur, a lui faire part du fruit de
vos recherches dans les sciences dont elle s'occupe.
Veuillez, Monsieur, agreer 1'assuraHce de ma
consideration la plus distinguee.
L'Academie procede par la voie du scrutin a
l'election d'un Correspondant, appele a remplir la place devenue vacante par
suite du deces de Mr. Brunei.
Le resultat du scrutin donne la majorite absolue
des suffrages a Mr. Fairbairn a Manchester.
En consequence M. le President le proclame elu
Pour extrait conforme,
It may be interesting to add a list of the
Englishmen who were members of the Institute about the time of Mr.
Fairbairn's election :—
Academic des Inscriptions. Horace Hayman Wilson,
Oxford, Assoeit Stranger. William Martin Leake, Loudon, Correspondant. Thos.
Thos. Wright, London, „
II. Hawlinson, Bagdad, B. H. Hodgson, Bengal
Academic des Sciences. Robert Brown. A»sociates
Stranger. Capt. Scoresby, Correspondant. Michael Faraday, Admiral Beaufort.
In 1853 came a third distinction, one highly
appreciated by those who know its nature, namely, his election without
ballot, into the Athemeum Club.
This institution was founded in 1824, with an
object-independent of all political or party views, namely, 4 for the
association of individuals known for their scientific or literary
attainments, artists of eminence in any class of the fine arts, and noblemen
and gentlemen distinguished as liberal patrons of science, literature, or
the arts. The number of members is 1,200; and although admission into the
club has not been exclusively confined to persons who come within the avowed
classification, it is understood that the club Is distinguished from all
others by the predominance of members of scientific, literary; and artistic
pursuits and tastes.
The ordinary mode of admission into the club is
by the usual process of a ballot among the members generally; and so great
is the demand for admission that there are at present above 1,500 candidates
on the books waiting their turn for election, and a name has to stand about
fifteen years on the list before it is called on.
The club has, however, a feature peculiar to
itself, namely, the existence of a rule which requires the managing
committee to keep up its special character by introducing into it, without
being subject to the general ballot, nine members annually, chosen for their
eminence in the objects for which the institution was founded. The following
is the rule in question :—
It being essential to the maintenance of the
Athenaeum, in conformity with the principles upon which it was originally
founded, that the annual introduction of a certain number of persons of
distinguished eminence in science, literature, or the arts, or for public
services, should be secured, a limited number of persons of such
qualifications shall be elected by the committee. The number so elected
shall not exceed nine in each year. The elections shall take place during
the months of January, February, March, and April. The committee shall be
specially summoned for the purpose, at least one week before the intended
election ; no election shall take place unless nine at least of the
committee be actually present, and the whole of those present be unanimous
in their election. Not more than one-third of the total number of persons to
be thus admitted within the year shall be elected at any one meeting.
The club intrust this privilege to the
committee, in the entire confidence that they will only elect persons who
shall have attained to distinguished eminence in science^ literature, or the
arts, or for public services. The names of members so elected are to be
immediately hung up in the public rooms.
In December, 1852, Mr. Fairbairn's name was
entered in the candidates' book, being proposed by Mr. George Rennie, and
seconded by Sir Roderick Murchison. On February 1, 1853, he was elected by
the committee under the rule above cited. Among those similarly introduced
in the same year were Thomas Carlyle, Baron Marochetti, and Sir Francis
Grant, now P.R.A.
The following honours were paid him at
subsequent periods of his life, on account of his scientific merits.
In November, 1855, he was elected member of the
Academie Nationale Agricoli, Manufacturiere et Ootn-merciale, Paris;—
In December, 1856, a Corresponding Associate of
the Royal Academy of Sciences, Turin ;—
In November, I860, an Honorary Member of the
Prussian 'Verein fur Beforderung des Gewerbfleisses,' Berlin ;—
1st July, 1861, an Honorary Member of the Royal
United Service Institution, London;—
In November, 1861, a Corresponding Member of the
Literary and Philosophical Society of Liverpool;—
In the same month, an Honorary Associate of the
Institution of Naval Architects, London ;—
In February, 1862, an Honorary Member of the
Yorkshire Philosophical Society ;—
In June, 1862, an Honorary Associate of the
Society of Arts, Geneva;—and
In October, 1867, an Honorary Member of the
Society of Engineers, London.
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