In this and the following chapter it is intended
to collect brief notices of a great variety of matters in which Mr.
Fairbairn was engaged during the later years of his life, all of more or
less importance, but not of sufficient magnitude to be recorded under
These notices will serve to show the
extraordinary activity, both mental and bodily, that he possessed at a
period of life when most men feel inclined to relax their energies and rest
from their labours. He had no motive for continuing to work but love of the
work itself, for he had already acquired both wealth and fame, and if he had
ambition, it was only to show that his heart was in his profession, and to
render himself useful to mechanical science.
Visit to Northern Europe.—About the middle of
1850 Mr. Fairbairn, accompanied by his son Peter, visited Northern Europe.
He had occasion to go to Sweden, to examine some mills and machinery the
firm were erecting there, and he extended his tour to Russia, with the
object of negotiating for the construction of some large bridges over the
Neva and other rivers.
The following extracts from some of his letters
to his family will give sufficient information as to the events of his
journey and the impression they made upon him.
Stockholm, June 17, 1850.
I thought to have written you from (xefle, but I
was uncertain as to the time we should have a vessel for Russia, and I
purposely deferred it until our return to this city. We have travelled
through nearly the whole of Sweden. Two days after our arrival at Copenhagen
we hail to proceed to Gottenburg, and then embark in a steamer which
traverses the line of the great lakes, and after a voyage of nearly 400
miles we again entered the Baltic at a town called Soderkoping, esteemed as
a famous watering-place by the citizens of Stockholm.
The tour through the interior has been so
exceedingly interesting, that I must endeavour to describe it. It commenced
at Gottenburg by ascending the river Ciotta, which is navigable for nearly
100 miles from the sea, where it terminates by a series of picturesque
falls, over which the water pours and thunders from a height of 120 feet.
These falls are surmounted by a series of twelve locks, which land the
vessel on the surface of the great lake Wenner. Here we commence a new
voyage to Carlstad, at the extreme end of the lake, 100 miles distant. This
lake—the largest in Sweden—is 100 miles long and 50 miles wide, and, like
most of the Swedish lakes, is covered with a number of small islands, wooded
down to the water's edge.
At Carlstad we remained all night, and next
morning crossed the lake, where we entered the canal which unites the great
lake with another of half the size. This brought us to Motala, where we
found a large engineering establishment in a flourishing condition. Some
distance below Motala we entered the lake Roxen, and from thence through
another series of lakes reached Soderkoping, where we entered the Baltic, on
the opposite side of the kingdom.
From Soderkoping a sea voyage amidst innumerable
islands, with which the coast is studded, carried us to the entrance of the
Malar lake, at a place called Sodertelge. From this little town, a short
voyage of only thirty miles opened out some of the finest views in Sweden.
The lake contains upwards of 130 islands beautifully covered with oak,
birch, and pine, and the romantic rocks and sylvan dells which mark the
surface of those enchanting spots are scarcely to be equalled in any other
country, Norway alone excepted.
On reaching Stockholm, I found that the objects
of my journey and other particular? had been announced before my arrival. I
was, therefore, at no loss for introductions ; but, unfortunately for our
visit as a matter of business, there is nothing to be done, as the King and
the whole of the administration are incessantly occupied with arrangements
for the grand ceremony of the marriage of the Prince Royal to the Princess
of the Netherlands, whom I dined with at Potsdam, and who landed here
yesterday under the firing of cannon and the greatest rejoicings. I cannot,
therefore, do anything at present with the authorities, excepting only with
some members of the university and some of the leading men connected with
the public works. To them I have communicated all the information required,
and we must wait the result.
After a couple of days' sojourn in Stockholm we
proceeded by sea to Gefle, about 150 miles north of Stockholm. At this town
we are building the large factory; and after having given the necessary
instructions and made the requisite arrangements for the buildings, I was
presented with 100?. for my trouble, and, having been feasted for two days,
we hired carriages and travelled overland and through almost interminable
forests to Upsala, the ancient capital of Sweden. Here I was received by the
students as if I had been the friend of Linnaeus or Berzelius. Our arrival,
they told me, had been announced in the papers, and they welcomed me to
Sweden as if I had been a great man. I was introduced to the Governor and
the Archbishop of Sweden, who is well known in England from his writings.
Before reaching Upsala we crossed the river
Elfertilge, and visited the falls, which are about the same height as those
of Trollhatta. They are, however, still more magnificent from the greater
quantity of water which plunges all at once over a precipice of rock, and
dashes forward at an astounding rate till it is lost in the deep water
below. From the falls to Upsala the road passes through interminable forests
of pine, with here and there a cultivated patch to mark an occasional
habitation. From Upsala to Stockholm the journey is made by water on a lake
which presents the same picturesque features as described in the former
I am this moment called off to dine with a party
made up for us, and must bring this letter to a close. We sail to-morrow at
six in the morning, and hope to reach Abo, in Friedland, on Wednesday night,
and Petersburgh on Saturday or Sunday.
St. Petersburg, July 22, 1831).
I have this moment returned from Peterhoff,
where we have had a kind and most gracious reception from the Emperor, the
Empress, and the Grand Duke Alexander. The Emperor met me like an old
schoolfellow, shook me cordially by the hand, and listened with great
interest to everything I had to say about the bridges. The audience lasted
nearly an hour, and I found myself in familiar conversation not only with a
sovereign of the highest rank in Europe, but with a gentleman of sound
judgment and great good sense. His Majesty at once placed me perfectly at
ease, and received with attention all the information I was able to
communicate.- At parting he again took me by the hand, thanked me for the
presentation of the book, and, without pledging himself to any ulterior
measures, said he hoped I would occupy myself on my return to England with
plans and drawings for a bridge across the Neva.
On board the 'Nicholas,' July 25.
Now that I have finished the object of my
journey to Russia, I cannot but feel highly gratified with my reception in
every quarter; My name had reached Petersburgh before me; and I may not
probably be accused of too much vanity if I state that I was received with
marked attention, and particularly by the members of my own profession.
Generals . . . and ... all of them at the head of the civil as well as
military engineering, were most kind and attentive ; and during the whole of
my professional career I never spent a month more gratifying to my feelings
or more flattering to my self-esteem. I have often put the question to
myself, Do I merit all this distinction? I always get alarmed on this
subject, as I have more than once seen the ill effects of undue presumption.
I hope and pray that a just sense of the value of what I have done, and what
I might have done had I been more industrious and persevering, will keep me
equally safe in the height of prosperity, as it would nerve me with
resolution in the depths of adversity. I write thus my feelings and
sentiments freely, in order that you [this was to his sons] may benefit from
them. I have had some experience in the world, and I think it is safer in an
estimate of one's own abilities to be within than beyond the bounds of
I believe we may calculate upon some good orders
for cranes and other work at Petersburgh and Cronstadt. At the latter place
a great deal has to be done. Large engineering works, double the extent of
those at Woolwich, are in progress of erection. I spent the whole of
yesterday with the different officers in command, and, as at Petersburgh,
was most kindly received.
Last night we sailed for Lubeck; and I am now
completing the letter ready for the post when we reach Hamburg.
As a result of Mr. Fairbairn's visit to Sweden,
he was honoured with a distinction by King Oscar, as the following letter
will explain :—
Stockholm, le 19 Juillet, 1850.
Monsieur,—Le Eoi ayant daigne d^cerner a M.
William Fairbairn une medaille en or a l'effigie de sa Majeste, en
temoignage de la haute satisfaction avec laquelle sa Majeste a reyu
l'ouvrage scientifique que cet ingenieur distingue lui a offert, j'ai repu
l'ordre de vous transmettre ci-pr&, Monsieur, cette medaille, et de reclamer
vos soins obligeans pour la faire parvenir a M. Fairbairn, dont l'adresse
est inconnue ici.
Je profite de cette occasion, &c. &c.
Monsieur Goudon, Chargi d'Affaires de S.M.
Inventors.—It was the lot of Mr. Fairbairn, as
it is that of all eminent engineers, to be pestered by inventors, often with
the most absurd and trumpery schemes. The following letter, introducing one
of these worthies, is worth preserving:—
London, Feb. 3, 1851.
Dear Sir,—You have, I dare say, frequently to
endure the misery of listening to an enthusiast who dreams that he has
discovered the perpetual motion. Perhaps I am going to add one more to this
class of tormentors.
I got a letter from a person at Ilchester some
time ago, faying that a friend of his, a mechanic, who had previously
invented a glove-cutting machine, had discovered a new engine which was
likely to supersede steam; and, as he was a Free Trader, he had pitched upon
me as the only person to whom he would impart his secret. I wrote, in reply
to this complimentary epistle, to say that I had no technical knowledge in
such matters, but offered to name a trustworthy engineer ; and in reply to
the enclosed letter I have taken the liberty of referring the writer to
yourself. Should the genius in question present himself to you, you will, I
am sure, be kind enough to give him a courteous hearing. I have no doubt it
will turn out a waste of time for him and yourself.
Do not take the trouble to reply, but believe
me, Ever faithfully yours,
yf. F.'.uteaiblf, Esq.
Exhibition of 1851.—Mr. Fairbairn acted as a
juror in the machinery department of the Great Exhibition of 1851.
At the close of the work he received the
following letter from the Rev. Professor Moseley, who wrote the official
reports on the department to which he was attached:—
Wandsworth. Feb. 11, 1832.
My dear Sir,- -The reports are about, I believe,
to be struck off at length. It has been a tedious affair ; but in completing
it, and thus bringing to a close my own labours in connection with Jury V.,
I am reminded of its special obligations, and of my own personally to some
of its members, and among others to yourself.
We are indebted to you in a great measure, I
believe, for the report on which we acted as to Sections E, F, G, than which
in the compilation of my own report I found none more full, complete, and
satisfactory. Your guidance and judgment in matters of which you have so
extensive an experience was of the utmost value to the jury; and considering
how many and important are your other occupations, it has great obligations
to you for the time and labour you devoted to the work it had undertaken.
I beg of you also to accept my own thanks for
the support and assistance I, as chairman, always received from you, and to
Yours, my dear Sir, truly,
British Association at Hull.—In 1853 Mr.
Fairbairn was appointed President of the Mechanical Section of the British
Association, at their meeting at Hull, and he delivered, on the opening of
the business, an address ' On the Progress of Mechanical Science.' He
alluded to the improvements that had taken place, and to the progress going
on in the same direction, referring particularly to the great advance in
naval architecture and steam navigation, as exemplified in the 'Duke of
Wellington' and the 'Great Eastern ' steam-ships ; the extension of the
scale of manufacturing industry by the erection of gigantic manufactories,
and other improvements in various departments of the mechanical art.
Cooling Air in Tropical Climates.—In 1853 and
1854, Mr. Fairbairn formed one of a committee of the British Association
appointed to consider a matter of much sanitary importance to the European
residents in India. The purport of it may be shown by the following copy of
a memorial, which was drawn up by another member of the committee, the late
Professor Macquorn Bankine :— b b
To the Honourable the Board of Directors of the
East India Company.
The Memorial of the British Association for the
Advancement of Science, showeth :
That yom1 memorialists are deeply impressed bv
the well-known permcions effects upon the health of Europeans produced by
the high temperature of the air in tropical climates.
That they are convinced that if the means
existed in tropical climates of furnishing for the ventilation of buildings
—especially hospitals for the sick—large supplies of cool air, much disease
and mortality would be prevented, and the comfort and health, and consequent
vigour and efficiency in thought and action, of Europeans in such climates
That the means of cooling air at present
employed depend upon the evaporation of water, and are not only uncertain
and imperfect in their action, but, even while depriving the air of its
heat, tend to make it pernicious in another way, by loading it with
That your memorialists have had submitted to
them the descriptions of proposed machines whereby the property which
elastic substances possess of causing heat to disappear when they expand,
may be made available for the cooling of air in tropical climates.
That the proposed method of cooling air is
founded on correct scientific principles, and that there appears to be no
reason to doubt its practical efficiency.
That it could be applied to large volumes of air
without affecting the dryness or purity, and at a moderate expense.
Your memorialists, therefore, beg leave
respectfully to submit for the consideration of your Honourable Board the
description of the proposed method of cooling air, and to suggest the
expediency of a trial of its efficiency being made in some large building
containing many inmates, such as a hospital.
In respect whereof this memorial is subscribed,
and the seal of the British Association for the Advancement of Science
The design of the machine in question was
suggested by Professor Piazzi Smith (now Astronomer Royal for Scotland), and
a grant was made by the Association for experiments ; but the sum was too
small for any efficient trial, and for want of further encouragement the
proposal fell to the ground; but the idea is a good and laudable one, and
the fact of its having been thought practicable by such eminent men,
deserves to be put on record.
The Institution of Mechanical Engineers.—In 1851
Mr. Fairbairn was elected President of the Institution of Mechanical
Engineers. This society was founded in 1847, for the study and encouragement
of the mechanical branch of engineering, particular attention being devoted
to the details of that department of the profession. The head-quarters of
the society were fixed in Birmingham, for the sake of being near the more
important iron manufacturing districts, and many eminent mechanical
engineers gave it their active support. Mr. Fairbairn joined it in October
1847. He took a warm interest in the proceedings of the society, and
communicated many papers to the Transactions. He retained the presidency
during the years 1854 and 1855.
Business in France.—During the year 1854 Mr.
Fairbairn went, with his son Adam, to Paris, where he remained a few days.
During this time he was introduced to the Academy of Sciences, and visited
many objects of scientific and engineering interest. He was also honoured,
through the mediation of Lord Cowley, by an interview with the Emperor Louis
Napoleon, who received him in a flattering manner, and on taking leave of
him presented him with a handsome gold snuff-box set with diamonds.
As a sequel to this he was chosen one of the
jurors sent from this country to the Paris Exhibition of 1855, and was
nominated by the French Imperial Commission as chairman of one of the
After the conclusion of the Exhibition, he made
an elaborate report to the Right Hon. Lord Stanley of Alderley, President of
the Board of Trade, 'On the Machinery of the Paris Universal Exhibition,
1855.' It was afterwards published in his 'Useful Information for
Engineers,' Third Series, 1856, and it contains some remarks on the
comparative merits of British and Continental manufactures which are of
permanent interest. Mr. Fairbairn says:—
I am >if opinion that the locomotive engines of
Great Britain are superior to most others ; and although they may not have
the same amoimt of polish, there is nevertheless a simplicity of form and a
soundness of -workmanship which give character and stability to these
The marine engines will not bear a comparison
with those that were exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851.
The French ouvners are active, intelligent, and
well employed; the Germans swift, and Belgians patient and enduring; and
although foreigners may take a longer time in executing works than English
workmen, they are nevertheless expert, and, in many cases, better educated,
and therefore better able to cope with the difficulties and surmount the
obstacles in the way of a successful progress.
I do not mean to intimate that the mass of the
workmen abroad are better informed in the practice of their respective
callings than in England; but I firmly believe, from what I have seen, that
the French and Germans are in advance of us in theoretical knowledge of the
principles of the higher branches of industrial art; and I think this arises
from the greater facilities afforded by the institutions of those countries
for instruction in chemical and mechanical science.
When reporting on the manufacture of iron, I
endeavoured to show that, notwithstanding the natural resources placed at
our disposal, the quality of our cast-iron is not to be depended on ; that
under the powerful stimulus of self-aggrandisement we have perseveringly
advanced the quantity, whilst other nations, less favoured and less
bountifully supplied, have been studying with much more care than ourselves
the numerous uses to which the material may be applied, and are in many
cases in advance of us in quality.
In regard to machinery for the manufacture of
textile fabrics, Great Britain has assuredly every reason to be proud of the
position she holds.
In regard to steam-engines, iron bridges, and
machinery, our superiority is not so strongly marked ; and although we still
take the lead, we are not so much in advance of others, as the engines
exhibited at Paris fully proved. In marine construction we are still
superior to all other nations, but abroad rapid advances are making in that
In the construction of mill-work this country
stands unrivalled ; our millwrights stand alone for neatness of design and
judicious proportion of parts. In tools for workshops we are also
With the exception of reaping machines, in which
America excels, our agricultural implements, including those for working
plastic materials, are superior to those of most countries; and this
superiority appears to be due to the v ariable nature of our climate, which
necessitates ail improved system of culture anil the use of machines
calculated to save time and to ensure success in the labour of the farm.
But although Mr. Fairbairn thus gave, on the
whole, the superiority to Great Britain in machinery, he was not blind, to
the deficiency of our countrymen in regard to such portions of manufacture
as were dependent on the fine arts. In a letter to Lord Overstone, written
January 10, 1850, he expressed the idea, that had occurred to many careful
observers, of the superiority of continental over English designs. lie said,
alluding to a proposition that had been made :—
I am glad to find you approve of the proposal of
Lord Ashburton to move for a committee.
I quite agree with you that there is no reason
for alarm; but it is nevertheless good policy, on the part of a nation as
well as a general, never to despise the strength of an enemy.
As an observer and a juror at the Paris
Exhibition, I had opportunities of noticing in what we appeared to excel and
in what we were inferior to our competitors; and it is rather mortifying to
find that in matters of taste and design in our own manufactures we are
indebted to the intellect of others. In our porcelain, silversmiths', calico
printing, and some other trades, the [best] results are from foreign and not
from native talent; and the same defects are observable in architecture,
which, by the bye, is now improving, as in some other of the useful and
industrial arts. Altogether I think the enquiry will do good, and I am glad
to find we shall have the benefit of your lordship's valuable assistance.
Shortly after this Mr. Fairbairn had some
correspondence on the subject with Lord Ashburton himself; and received from
his lordship the following letter, the opinions in which are of public and
enduring importance :—
Grange, Jan. 27, 1846.
My dear Mr. Fairbairn,—Were it not for prolonged
illness, I should have proposed to have met you at Manchester on yom return
from abroad, so anxious am I to state in person to those who might possibly
co-operate in the proposed enquiry, the spirit in which it may be worked,
and the precise nature of the evil which it is calculated to remedy. We
cannot but be proud as Englishmen of the lead we have taken in scientific
discovery, as well as in the ingenious applications of those discoveries to
the most extensive development of industry that has ever existed.
This has been due to the instinctive genius of
great minds, who have made their own way upward in spite of all their
disadvantages. They had no Polytechnic School, no systematic instruction to
level half the ascent for them. They had to win the whole way for
Perhaps they were the greater for this; but the
mass was left behind in hopeless ignorance ; and it is to the condition of
that mass that I wish to draw general attention.
England possesses special advantages, such as
are not enjoyed, such as will never possibly be compassed by any other
We have the most accessible coal and iron, the
cheapest system of transit; we have operatives superior in physical
strength, in constancy of application to labour, in the conscientious
execution of their work; but our greatest superiority-consists in that habit
of self-reliance and independent effort which will now right this mischief
of which I have to complain, as it has uniformly righted other similar
mischiefs, as soon as the public mind has been convinced of their existence.
The mischief consists, as I have said before, in
the ignorance of the masses, in which masses I include our peers, gentry,
tradesmen and mechanics, as well as our manufacturers and operatives. As for
our peers aud gentry and tradesmen, no evidence is wanting. They plead
guilty; I trust that I may obtain such evidence with regard to the
manufacturing classes as will show not only the existence among them of this
general ignorance, but evidence also of the evils consequent upon it.
If you ask me my present private opinion of the
cause of this ignorance, I feel disposed to impute it to the monastic
teaching of our universities, which impart to all the special instruction
rtquired for the Church. It is from the universities that have been drawn
the masters of our principal middle and commercial schools, and their
fashion has been followed elsewhere. As for teaching the workman 1-efore you
have enlightened his employer, as for teaching the tradesman before yon have
enlightened the customer, we may set up a thousand benevolent schools and
institutes, we shall onh lose our labour. The course, of nature is that the
demand should precede the supply, and we may as well seek to persuade water
uphill as attempt to reverse this course.
But I am now launching into the field of
speculation. Such opinions may or may not result from the enquiry.
The enquiry is into the ignorance of the masses
with regard to science, and the evils resulting therefrom.
2ndlv. The conditions of our present system of
education, which permit the continuance of such ignorance.
3rdly. The remedies, and those remedies will be
designated by better heads than mine.
I have written you this that you may show it and
obtain opinions, and, if possible, secure co-operation.
I believe this move to be capable of working
great good; but for that good I look not to the Government, but to the
combined efforts of all classes of the nation.
I remain, dear Sir,
In the same year Mr. Fairbairn was applied to by
the Emperor of the French to give advice in regard to some bridges proposed
to be erected in France, one an ornamental one in the Bois de Boulogne, and
others at Brest and elsewhere. He had an audience of his Majesty, and
submitted some suggestions am1 drawings, but it does not appear that any of
his proposals were carried into execution.
As an acknowledgment of the services he had
rendered in this and other matters concerning France, he was, on November
13, 1855, awarded by the decree of the Emperor, the distinction of the
Legion of Honour.
Watt.—The inhabitants of Manchester have, with
much public spirit, ornamented their city with statues of many eminent men.
The esplanade in front of the Infirmary contains statues of Wellington,
Peel, and Dalton, the discoverer of the atomic theory. To these it was
determined to add a statue of the great engineer, Watt, to v horn the town
was so much indebted for its mechanical advantages.
The statue, an enlarged copy in bronze of
Chantrey's marble one in Westminster Abbey, was inaugurated on June 26,
1857, Mr. Fairbairn, as the most eminent mechanic in the city, being deputed
to take the lead in the ceremony. He said, addressing the Mayor and
It is my pleasing duty, as President of the
Literary and Philosophical Society and Chairman of the Watt Memorial
Committee, to transfer from our hands to your superior keeping and to that
of your successors this statue and memorial of the inventor of the
steam-engine, James Watt.
The character of the statue and its position
render it an appropriate and fitting companion to that of our distinguished
townsman, the late Dr. Dalton. It will show, though late, that Manchester
has not heen ungrateful, but remembers and deeply appreciates the services
of Watt to her and all mankind ; and this day I trust will show that among
her other art treasures alluding to the 'Exhibition of Art Treasures' then
open in Manchester] she numbers this as a most precious memorial of a great
and good man.
It would be superfluous for me to attempt to
eulogise the inventions and discoveries of Watt; the world knows and feels
them, and is now living by them. The steam-engine is the pioneer and
promoter of civilisation. By its agency the weak become strung, and time and
distance become short. It gives employment to thousands, and transports with
the same celerity, on land as on water, the products of industry of every
clime to any part of the globe.
The smallest honour we can do to the great
benefactors of mankind is occasionally to bring them to our recollection;
and 1 trust that this statue will stimulate in the minds of future
generations a spirit of emulation to excel, and will cherish a desire in
every right-minded person to treasure up in his memory the honour and
obligations ever due to the virtues of our great men.
This statue is the property of the major,
aldermen, and citizens of Manchester.
In 1857 Mr. Fairbairn contributed a note on the
merits of James "Watt, to a memoir of him by Arago, published in a
translation of Arago's 'Biographies of Distinguished Scientific Men'. He
conceived that sufficient justice had not been done to Watt by the French
author, and he endeavoured to correct the error.
Henry Cort.—About the same time, Mr. Fairbairn
interested himself warmly in the case of the family of an inventor, Henry
Cort, who had contributed largely to the improvement of the iron
manufacture, but who had been ruined in the carrying out of his inventions
(see Chap. II., pages 81, 32). In the article on Iron, written in 1856 for
the Encyclopredia Britannica, Mr. Fairbairn had said :—
It would be a difficult task to enumerate all
the services rendered by Mr. Cort to the industry of this country, or
sufficiently to express our sympathy with the descendants of a man to whose
mechanical inventions we owe so much of our national greatness.
As a sequel to this Mr. Fairbairn, In February
1857, made a powerful appeal directly and personally to Lord Palmerston on
behalf of certain descendants of Henry Cort who were in distress. Lord Derby
had kindly relieved them temporarily from the royal bounty fund, and had
held out a hope that a pension should be granted ; but for two years nothing
In July 1859 Mr. Fairbairn brought the esse to
public notice by a letter to the Times, and got up a memorial to the
Government, which was signed by 130 iron manufacturers, and was presented to
Lord Palmerston by a deputation including many men of the first eminence in
the mechanical world. These measures resulted in a grant of 100/. per annum
to the only surviving son, and of 50/. each to the three surviving
In addition to this, Mr. Fairbairn exerted
himself to get up a private subscription among persons interested in the
iron manufacture ; but this was not taken up by the iron masters with a
liberality at all corresponding to his zeal or their own means; and the
total sum raised for the family was only a little over 500/., of which 100/.
was contributed by Mr. Fairbairn himself.
Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition.—In 1857 the
' Art Treasures Exhibition ' was held in Manchester. It was got up with
great expense and trouble, and brought much credit to the town. Mr.
Fairbairn aided the committee in regard to the arrangements of the building
(which was very large, chiefly composed of iron, and erected for the express
purpose), but otherwise did not take a prominent part iu the management. His
son Thomas was the chairman of the Committee of the exhibition, and its
Journey to Italy.—In the latter part of 1857,
Mr. Fairbairn suffered from a slight rheumatic attack, and as it lasted some
months he determined to endeavour to cure it by a visit to the warmer
climate of the south of Europe. He accordingly left England with his son
George 011 December 11,1857. and went through Paris to Marseilles. From
thence they took the steamer to Nice, and travelled by land along the
beautiful Cornice Road to Genoa. The journey was then extended to the most
important cities of Italy, including Naples, Rome, Florence, Bologna, Milan,
and Turin. The whole journey occupied two months and eight clays, during
which he derived, as he states, ' unmixed pleasure and gratification.'
His powers of observation were in active
exercise the whole time, for he wrote, for the benefit of his family, a
chary of the whole journey, in which he gave animated descriptions of the
novel scenes he passed through, interspersed with many philosophical
reflections and remarks 011 the habits and customs of the people. It is
unnecessary to reproduce any portions of this diary, for there were no
incidents in his journey much differing from those ordinarily met with; and
descriptions of the routes, the places, and the objects of interest are now
common enough in ail sorts of forms.
But there was one element of the journey which
especially interested him, namely, the change of climate; and as he
conceived the general information 011 this topic was imperfect, he wrote,
soon after his return, a paper ' Gn the Comparative Temperature of the
Climates of England aud some parts of Italy.'
This he read before the Manchester Literary and
Philosophical Society on April 6, 1858, and it was published in their
Proceedings, vol. i. p. 45. The object was to point out that although Italy
had usually the credit of possessing a warm and agreeable climate in the
winter season, this really only applied to those parts which lay south of
the Apennines. In the northern districts, including the cities of Milan,
Venice, Turin, Bologna, and in fact the whole of Loinbardy and the
depression lying between the Alps and the Apennines, the cold in winter was
generally intense, sometimes almosl Russian in its character. In January,
when he was there, the thermometer w as usually below freezing, and on
arriving at Milan it descended as low as 19°. On the 13th the minimum had
touched—12'5° Reaumur, or nearly our zero.
The Atlantic Cable—From 1859 to 1865 Mr.
Fairbairn interested himself actively in regard to the grand enterprise of
carrying electric telegraph communication to America.
The Atlantic Telegraph Company was formed in
1856, and the first cable was laid in 1858, but after a few days' working it
became useless, partly from imperfect construction, and partly from want of
care in laying. The Company, however, nothing daunted, appealed to the
Government to assist them in an undertaking of such great public importance,
and in 1859 the Board of Trade appointed a commission, consisting of Captain
Galton, R.E., Professor Wheatstone, Mr. Fairbairn, and Mr. G. P. Bidder, to
join with the engineers and the secretary of the Company in holding an
enquiry into the ' best form for the composition and outer covering of
submarine telegraph cables.' This joint committee sat for nearly two years ;
they took a great amount of evidence from all those who had most experience
on the subject, and made many important investigations of their own. In
April 1861 they laid before Government a full report, embodying their views
and recommendations, which was afterwards published, with the evidence and
many valuable documents, as a Parliamentary paper. In the course of the
enquiry Mr. Fairbairn undertook personally a series of experiments 'on the
permeability of various kinds of insulators,' an account of which, written
by him, was appended to the report.
The result of the enquiry was to lead the
committee to the following statement:—
We are clearly of opinion that the failures of
the existing submarine lines have been due to causes which might have been
guarded against, had adequate preliminary investigation been made into the
question. And we are convinced that if regard be had to the principles we
have enunciated in devising, manufacturing, laying, and maintaining
submarine cables, this class of enterprise may prove as successful as it has
hitherto been disastrous.
To this able report we owe probably the
establishment of public confidence in the undertaking, and the prompt
measures that were taken to re-organise the arrangements for another cable.
But the Company wisely resolved that they would not risk a second failure
for want of advice, and they accordingly appointed a ' Permanent Consulting
Scientific Committee,' consisting of Captain Galton, Mr. Fairbairn,
Professor Wheatstone, Mr. "Whitworth, and Professor Wm. Thomson, to whom
mechanical questions as to the construction and laying of the cable might be
referred to from time to time. Mr. Fairbairn was asked to give more
immediate aid by joining the Company, but he declined to do so, on the
ground of his advancing years.
In 1863 he wrote a long report giving a strong
opinion on the practicability of the scheme on the tests for insulation; on
the strength, the laying, &c. He also aided in the negotiations with the
Government on the matter, and was in constant communication with various
parties on the subject. At the British Association meetings iu 1864 and 1805
lie presented papers descriptive up the investigations in which he had taken
In 1805 the second cable was laid by the 'Great
Eastern ' steamer, and during that year Mr. Fairbairn was still in active
correspondence on various matters connected with the undertaking; always
expressing great confidence as to its ultimate success. The operation failed
by the fracture of the cable, and some discouragement was again felt for a
time; but in the following year a new cable was successfully laid, and
ultimately that of 1805 was picked up and repaired, thus giving a duplicate
communication which has been in almost constant work to the present time.
In the third series of 'Useful Information for
Engineers,' 1866, Mr. Fairbairn republished his papers on this subject.
Manchester Literary and Philosophical
Society.—Mr. Fairbairn was long connected with this Institution. It was
founded in 1781 as a weekly club, bu1. was more formally established, with
the present name, in 1789. The second president was the celebrated Dr.
Henry, and the still more eminent Dr. Dalton became secretary in 1800. In
1817 he was chosen president, and remained so till his death in 1844. A few
years afterwards the same office was filled by Mr. Eaton Hodgkinson. The
Society has held the first rank among provincial associations of the kind,
and its proceedings have been highly esteemed.
From about 1820 Mr. Fairbairn had been a
constant and active member of this society, and he states, ' when he was
young, in the pursuit of knowledge, how delightful and instructive it was to
listen, on the days of meeting, to the plain, straightforward style of
Dalton; the polished periods of Henry, and the animated remarks of Dr.
Holme and other members who used to lighten up
the conversation, and render the meetings attractive.'
Mr. Fairbairn was elected President of the
society in 1855, and remained in that office till 1860, working zealously to
maintain its character and promote its interests. At the opening meeting of
the session of 1859-60 he gave a presidential address, which began as
In most societies having for their object the
advancement of science, it is the custom for the president to open the
session with an address. This, although not hitherto practised in this
society, is nevertheless a salutary custom, as it affords an opportunity for
taking in review the discoveries and improvements of the past, and of giving
encouragement to the members iu the production of papers for the future.
Under the impression that such a retrospect might be useful, I venture to
lay before you such a statement, showing what has already been done and
what, in my opinion, remains to be accomplished in the present session.
The address consisted of an able review of the
history of the society, and of its connection with the progress of different
branches of science.
Royal Society Gold Medal.—In 1860 a further
distinction was paid him by the Royal Society. The Society have the power of
distributing annually four medals— one 'Copley Medal,' from a legacy in 1709
by Sir Godfrey Copley, Bart., for great general eminence in science; one 'Eumford
Medal,' founded in 1796 by Count Eumford, specially to reward discoveries in
regard to heat and light; and two ' Royal Medals,' established by George
IV., and continued by the sovereigns ever since, for any important recent
This year Mr. Fairbairn was awarded one of the
Royal medals. In the annual address, the President said :—
A Royal Medal has been awarded to Mr. William
Fairbairn, for his various experimental enquiries on the properties of the
materials employed in mechanical construction, contained in the
'Philosophical Transactions,' and in the publications of other scientific
lie then enumerated several of Mr. Fairbairn's
most important -works and papers, and concluded :—
Perhaps it may be said with truth, that there is
no single individual living who has done so much for practical science, who
has made so many careful experimental enquiries on subjects of primary
importance to the commercial and manufacturing interests of this country, or
who has so liberally contributed them to the world.
In presenting this medal to you from this chair,
I will venture to say that the award of the Royal medal,—the medal which Her
Majesty the Queen has been graciously pleased to place at the disposal of
the President and Council, for scientific services such as yours, so
eminently conducive to the general good, is even peculiarly appropriate.
British Association at Manchester.—In 1861 the
meeting of the British Association was held at Manchester, and Mr.
Fairbairn, as one of the most eminent scientific celebrities of the town,
was appropriately chosen as President.
The opening meeting was held on September 4,
when Lord Wrottesley, the retiring President, said:—
In retiring from the office I have hail the
honour to hold, it is a great pleasure to me to know that I am to be
succeeded by one who is so well worthy of your support. We may derive
important instruction from the career of Mr. Fairbairn, whether we view Lim
as the successful engineer or as the distinguished man of science. In the
former capacity he is one who has by perseverance, combined with talent,
risen from small beginnings to the summit of his profession, and he forms
one of that noble class of men, the Stephensons, the Brunels, the Whitworths, the
Armstrongs, which have conferred such important services on their country,
and some of whom, unfortunately for that country, have perished, alas, too
soon, exhausted by their arduous toils. Mr. Fairbairn, therefore, is one of
the many examples of what can be done in England by such men who resolve,
undaunted by the difficulties and obstructions that beset their path, to
struggle, gallantly onward till success crown their efforts.
Again, if we look at Mr. Fairbairn's claims to
scientific distinction, they read to us an important lesson; for they show
what can be done by zeal and energy, and the exercise of a strong and
resolute will, fully determined to carry out objects in which the public is
deeply interested. It is extraordinary that any man should have been able,
during the few leisure hours that can be snatched from an important and
engrossing business, to accomplish for science what Mr. Fairbairn has done;
and not only has he been a most successful contributor to mechanical
science, but his liberality has been unbounded in placing all his great
mechanical resources at the disposal of his fellow-labourers in the same
Such a man is one whom all should delight to
honour, and to such a man I resign with great satisfaction the chair which 1
Mr. Fairbairn then took the chair, and gave his
inaugural address, which opened with the following remarks:—
A careful perusal of the history of this
Association will demonstrate that it was the first, and for a long time the
only institution which brought together for a common object the learned
professors of our universities and the workers in practical science. These
periodical reunions have been of incalculable benefit in giving to practice
that soundness of principle and certainty of progressive improvement winch
can only be obtained by the accurate study of science and its application to
the arts. On the other hand, the men of actual practice have reciprocated
the benefits thus received from theory, in testing by actual experiment
deductions which were doubtful, and ratifying those which were erroneous.
Guided by an extended experience, and exercising a sound and disciplined
judgment, they have often corrected theories apparently accurate, but,
nevertheless, founded on incomplete data, or on false assumptions
inadvertently introduced. If the British Association had effected nothing
more than the removal of the anomalous separation of theory and practice, it
would have gained imperishable renown in the benefit thus conferred.
Were I to enlarge on the relation of the
achievements of science to the comforts and enjoyments of man, I should have
to refer to the present epoch as one of the most important in the history of
the world. At no former period did science contribute so much to the uses of
life and the wants of society; and in doing this, it has been only
fulfilling that mission which Bacon, the great father of modern science,
appointed for it when he wrote that ' the legitimate goal of the sciences is
the endowment of human life with new inventions and riches;' and when he
sought for a natural philosophy which, not spending its energy on barren
disquisitions, should be operative for the benefit and endowment of mankind.
Looking, then, to the fact that whilst in our
time all the sciences have yielded this fruit, engineering science, with
which I have been most intimately connected, has pre-eminently advanced the
power, the wealth, and the comforts of mankind. I shall probably best
discharge the duties of the office I have the honour to fill, by stating as
briefly as possible the more recent scientific discoveries which have so
influenced the relations of social life. I shall therefore not dwell so much
on the progress of abstract science, important as that is, but shall rather
endeavour briefly to examine the applications of science to the useful arts,
and the results which have followed, and are likely to follow, in the
improvement of the condition of society.
Mr. Fairbairn then went on to trace the
applications of astronomy, magnetism, chemistry, geology, botany, zoology,
&c., and devoted the latter part of his address to a retrospect of the
progress of his own science, mechanics, as applied to engineering and to
machinery, closing with some observations on the patent laws.
He had asked Mr. Hopkins to look over the
address previously to his delivering it, and Mr. Hopkins, in returning it,
I think the address -will do extremely well, and
has the great merit of individuality. Your historical sketch of engineering
is very good and very appropriate. It illustrates well the advantage of
having men of different pursuits and habits of thought to occupy the
presidential chair of the Association. Engineering has scarcely been touched
upon before by our presidents, for the obvious reason that they have not
The meeting was very successful, and, as was
appropriate to the President and the place of meeting, mechanical science
had a large share of attention, the presidency of that section being taken
by Mr. Fairbairn's son-in-law, Mr. .T. F. Bateman.
Mr. Fairbairn was highly complimented by many
distinguished friends, as the following letters will show:—
Brougham, Penrith, September 6, 1861.
My dear Mr. Fairbairn,--I hope you will excuse
the liberty I take in congratulating you upon your most admirable and most
useful address, which I have read with the greatest satisfaction, and I
believe that it will most effectually serve to convince all classes of the
practical tendency of the sciences and their beneficial effects in promoting
the business of society.
Believe me to be most sincerely yours,
The following was from one of the most eminent
scientific engineers of his day:—
The Priory, Havham, Newbury, Birks, September
My dear Sir,—I have read, in my retreat at this
place, the daily proceedings of the British Association at Manchester, so
ably presided over by you, and so creditable to our order. I was
particularly struck with your able address, not only on matters of physical
science, but in the department of applied mechanics in which you were, as
the French say, au fait. But it is the steam-engine and its labours, whether
administering to our necessities, comforts, or luxuries, or for the purpose
of aggression or defence, and the wonderful changes it has produced in our
social and political existence, that has contributed so much to the interest
of your address. It recalls to my mind an occasion when old Mr. Watt and Mr.
Lovell Edgeworth were sitting before dinner, when my father, not having made
his appearance, and I being alone with them, ventured to remark that ' it
was the steam-engine that carried on the war.' When asked why 1 I replied, '
it made things so much cheaper than making them by hand,' for which answer I
was commended by Mr. Edge-worth.
Your observations comprised under science
applied to manufactures were particularly applicable at Manchester.
In one passage of the address Mr. Fairbairn had
alluded to the great invention of the multitubular boiler for the
locomotive, without which the railway system of transit, as now known, could
hardly have existed. The inventor, not an engineer, but the secretary of the
Liverpool and Manchester Railway, said of this, in a letter to a friend:—
Princes Park, September 6, 1861.
Thanks to you for Mr. Fairbairn's address, and
your reference to page 17. It is pleasant to see recognised, now and then,
my claim (which has never been denied) to be the inventor of the modern
tubular boiler, though neither G-eorge Stephenson nor I knew the importance
of it at the time.
When you see Mr. Fairbairn, my respects to him,
with my thanks. Truly yours,
During the meeting, Mr. Fairbairn received, as
guests in his house, many eminent scientific men from all parts of the
kingdom. Dr. Whewell was invited, but wrote from Nevey, September 2 :—
Your kind letter has followed me hither. As you
will see from the date of this, I shall not he able to attend the meeting
over which you are so worthily elected to preside, and I cannot help writing
a line to thank you, on my own part and Lady Affleck's, for your still
giving me an opening to join your party if it hau been possible. You are
very kind in wishing for my presence, but 1 am sure that I shall be very
I am gind to hear from the Astronomer Eoyal that
he is to preside over Section A, a post which I have several times tilled
with great interest. He tells me now that he is to give an evening lecture
on the eclipse which we, as well as he, witnessed last year m Spain. He
will, I know, try to convey to his audience the wonderful impression which
is produced by seeing the sun blotted out from the heavens and the stars
coming into view. It is not easy to exaggerate the striking effect of this
Lady Affleck joins me in very kind regards to
you and Mrs. Fairbairn, and I am, my dear sir,
Yours very truly,
Another Cambridge celebrity, then at a very
advanced age, attended the meeting, and afterwards wrote on November 5, 1861
I ought not to write any letters. The attacks of
giddiness still return upon me occasionally, and sometimes bring me to the
ground. My Cambridge doctor, almost every time he has called, has commanded
me to abstain sternly from ail letter-writing.
I remain, dear Sir,
Very faithfully yours,
Offer of Knighthood.—The following gracious
offer from Her Majesty arose out of this meeting:—
Balmoral, October 18, 1861.
Sir,—I have much satisfaction in informing you
that I have received Her Majesty's command to signify to you her pleasure
that, if you are willing to accept the honour, the dignity of Knighthood
should be conferred upon you in consideration of your distinguished services
to engineering science, and of your able presidency of the British
I have the honour to be, Sir,
Your obedient servant,
W, Faiebairn, Esq.
Mr. Fairbairn returned the following reply :—
Athenieum, London, October 23, 1S61.
Sir,—I shall ever retain a lively sense of
gratitude for Her Majesty's consideration in offering to me the dignity of
Knighthood for the services I have rendered to science. My thanks to the
Queen could not be more hearty in accepting the proffered honour than they
are now felt by me in respectfully declining it.
During a long life I have tried above all things
to make myself useful. For more than seventy years I have found the plain
names I bear sufficient for the furtherance of the great object of my life,
and I pray Her Majesty to permit me to retain them in their simplicity to
the end. Thanking you for the courteous terms of your communication,
I have the honour to be, Sir,
Your faithful servant,
The Eight Hon. Sir Onojrsi Grit, Bart., M.P.
Richard Roberts.—At the end of 1861 he
interested himself warmly in endeavouring to obtain a pension for Mr.
Richard Roberts, one of his fellow-townsmen and brother-engineers. Mr.
Roberts was a man of great mechanical ability, and was particularly noted
for his elegant and useful invention of the self-acting mule, and for many
other ingenious contrivances, he being in fact ' one of the most prolific
and useful inventors of his time.' He had been a partner in the great and
flourishing locomotive and manufacturing firm of Sharp, Roberts & Co.,
Manchester, but had fallen into poverty.
Mr. Fairbairn applied directly to Lord
Palmerston, armed with the force of his position as President of the British
Association, and obtained the following characteristic and truthful reply:—
94 Picradilly, Dec. 3, 1861.
My dear Mr. Fairbairn,—I will give due
consideration to the case of Mr. Roberts, in connection with those of other
candidates for a civil list pension. Rut I rather fear that it will scarcely
fall within the limits of the rules by which the grants of civil list
pensions are governed.
Moreover, the whole amount disposable is very
small, and it. is scarcely ever possible to give to any person more than a
hundred pounds a year and one should think that if the invention of Mr.
Roberts has been greatly advantageous to the manufacturers of cotton, those
who have grown rich by the use of his invention might, among them, well be
able to give him a better annuity than the civil list could afford.
He continued his aid, for it. 1864 we find him
still agitating for a private subscription to be got up in the same cause.
Honorary Degrees.—Mr. Fairbairn received
honorary degrees from two British Universities.
In 1860 his old and distinguished friend, Lord
Brougham, was elected Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh; and Mr.
Fairbairn received the following letter :—
Edinburgh, May 11 1860.
My dear Mr. Fairbairn,—Lord Brougham is to be
installed as Chancellor of our University on Friday, the 18th inst.; and it
is proposed on that occasion to confer the degree of LL.D. on a few
individuals distinguished in science.
I am authorised to enquire if it would be
convenient for you to be present on that day to receive the degree?
Ever most truly yours,
The degree of LL.D. was accordingly given. The
following letter of congratulation from the late Right Rev. Prince Lee, then
Bishop of Manchester, was much prized by its recipient:—
Manchester, May 26, 1860.
My dear Dr. Fairbairn,—No one can rejoice more
sincerely than both Mrs. Lee and myself at any recognition of services like
yours, or any circumstance which can cause happiness to you, Mrs. Fairbairn,
and your family. During the twelve years I have been in Manchester, I have
seen your utterly unselfish pursuit of what was calculated to advance the
moral and temporal advantage of others, combined with a thorough devotion to
the investigation of scientific truth.
In the present case this recognition has come
from the highest scientific body of your own countrymen, to you most
gratifying, but to those who see how Government honours are given a proof
that our rulers are not acting as they ought to do.
That you may long enjoy the honour and happiness
you so richly and truly merit is, my dear friend, the sincere hope and
Your most attached and obliged,
J. P. Manchester.
W. Fairbairn, Esq., LL.D.
The following letters relate to a degree from
the University of Cambridge:—
Devonshire House, May 16, 1862.
Sir,—According to ancient usage, a considerable
number of honorary degrees will be conferred on the occasion of my first
visit to Cambridge as Chancellor of the University.
If it would be agreeable to you to accept this
compliment from the University, I should have great pleasure in adding your
name to the list which I have been invited to draw up.
I am, Sir,
Your obedient Servant,
W. Fairbairn, Esq.
The Lodge, May 16. 1862.
My dear Mr. Fairbairn,—I find that at the
Chancellor's suggestion you are to receive an honorary degree on the
occasion of his installation. I hope when you come to Cambridge you will
consider yourself my guest. If I am not able to give you a room in the lodge
you can have one in the college near to us, and will be our guest in all
Yours very truly,
W. Fairbairn, Esq.
The honorary degree of D.C.K, was conferred in
British Association, 1862.—At the meeting of the
British Association at Cambridge, in October 1862, Mr. Fairbairn occupied,
for the second time, the position of President to the Mechanical Section;
and he opened the proceedings with an address on the progress of mechanical
science generally, on the International Exhibition of that year, and on the
iron plate armour experiments in which he was then engaged.
International Exhibition of 1862.—In the Great
International Exhibitipn of 1862 his son Thomas had been nominated one of
the five Royal Commissioners, and Mr. Fairbairn himself was appointed
President of the Jury for machines and tools employed in the manufacture of
wood and iron.
No communication from him was published in the
official documents of the Exhibition, but he appears to have written an
elaborate Report on the Department of Machinery generally. With what object
this was done, or to whom the Report was addressed, does not appear, but an
abstract of it is given in his 'Useful Information for Engineers,' Third
Series, 1860. It concludes with the following passage:—
Having thus glanced, however imperfectly, at
some of the leading objects in the machinery department of the great
International Exhibition recently closed, we may safely state in conclusion
that more splendid and more instructive examples of the useful arts were
never at any previous time brought under the inspection of the public. There
is no department of practical science which has remained unrepresented, and
the student, mechanic, or engineer had only to read in his own department of
study the great page of nature and art which at this Exhibition was laid
open for his perusal. It is a great privilege for the present generation to
have had before their eyes the finest specimens of the manufacturing
machines in operation in their day, and in the construction of which it is
their ambition to excel. This is an advantage of which few countries can
boast, and it is of a character that will leave its impress upon the public
mind, and will raise the thinking and industrial position of the community
of this and of all other nations much higher in the scale of civilisation.
Work for the Admiralty.—Owing to the great
experience he had had in iron ship-building, his opinion and judgment were
highly esteemed by the Admiralty, and during the last twelve or fifteen
years of his life, he was frequently consulted by them, and was, indeed,
almost in constant communication with them on matters affecting naval
In July 1863, he gave, in answer to the request
of Mr. Reed (then chief constructor of the Navy), a long Report on the
general design of a proposed new ship of war; which was followed by other
reports and communications. These however were considered confidential
documents, and have not been made public.
Baronetcy.—It was in 1809, when Mr. Fairbairn
had arrived at the 80th year of his age, that the crowning honour of his
life was conferred on him, the dignity of the baronetage.
The following is a copy of the letter
communicating the offer to bim :—
Rally Castle, Darlington, Sept. 9, 1860.
Dear Mr. Fairbairn,—I am empowered by Her
Majesty to signify her desire to confer on you the honour of the baronetage,
and if I may anticipate your acceptance of a distinction so well earned by
your scientific eminence and services, I am sure that the public will
unanimously recognise the marked propriety of the selection.
It is extremely agreeable to me to convey to you
I remain, faithfully yours,
W. E. Gladstone.
W. Fairbairn, Esq.
Mr. Fairbairn, as in duty bound, intimated his
grateful acceptance of the Favour, and the patent was issued soon
He was overwhelmed with congratulations, among
which was one from a nobleman with whom Mr. Fairbairn and his family were
often in friendly communication :—
Knowsley, Prescot, Nov. 10, I860.
Dear Sir William Fairbairn,— Let me congratulate
you on a well-earned honour, which I only regret that the Government of
which I was a member did not gain the credit of conferring upon you.
Very truly yours,
Sir W. Fairbairn, Bart.
In writing to a relation Mr. Fairbairn said :—
April 16, 1870.
Your kind congratulations have been very
gratifying to both my wife and myself: and although I may not value these
titles to the same extent as some others do, I am nevertheless very much
gratified with this recognition of the services I have rendered to science.
These were the conditions on which the distinction was granted by Her
Majesty and the Government, and I ought to be very thankful.
As regards the name, I liked the old one '
William Fairbairn, of Manchester,' better; I am well known by it, and I fear
both my friends and the public will be slow to recognise me by any other.
But be this as it may, I am becoming every day more reconciled to the new
title, and 'My Lady' takes to it with more grace and dignity than her