Among the voluntary labours of the latter
portion of Mr. Fairbairn's life, one of the most prominent was the use of
his pen. He was naturally fond of writing, and whenever he undertook a
mechanical investigation, or studied a scientific subject, it seemed natural
to him to 'fix his ideas' (to use the French expression) by putting them
into a written form. His earlier books and papers had been well received,
and when he found himself relieved from his arduous occupations at the
manufactory, he began to write for publication more frequently.
A list of his writings, so far as can be
ascertained, is given at the end of this volume, and it will show how
prolific a writer he was. It consists in all of about eighty publications,
including several large books, and many elaborate memoirs in scientific
periodicals of- high character. The greater number of these were written
after he had passed his 60th year ; several of them have already been
mentioned under special heads, and it is intended in this chapter to give
brief notices of the more important books and memoirs among the remainder.
In March 1850, Mr. Fairbairn contributed a paper
to the Institution of Civil Engineers, on ' Tubular Girder Bridges.' The
subject was not, however, so general as the title would make it appear. It
had happened that a bridge which had been designed by Mr. John Fowler, d i> to
cross the Trent at Torksey, In Lincolnshire, and which had been made by
Messrs. Fairbairn, was objected to by the Government Inspector as too weak.
The subject was brought before the Institution of Civil Engineers, and the
strength was discussed at much length, the discussion involving some curious
points that required novel mathematical treatment. Mr. Fairbairn's paper
gave his own views on the subject, and many other engineers took part in the
investigation ; the result being that the sufficient strength of the bridge
was declared to be proved, and the objection to it was withdrawn.
Immediately after Mr. Fairbairn's election as a
Fellow of the Royal Society, he presented to that body a paper entitled ' An
Experimental Enquiry into the Strength of Wrought-iron I'lates and their
Riveted Joints, as applied to ship-building and vessels exposed to severe
strains.' It was read on June IS, 1850.
The following extract will give a general idea
of the nature and objects of the investigation :—
At the commencement of iron ship-building, in
which I took an active part, the absence of acknowledged facts relative 'to
the strength and varied conditions under which the material was applied, was
the principal reason which induced me to enter upon this enquiry. I have
extended the investigation into the best methods of riveting, and the
proportional strength of rivets, joints, &c., as compared with the plates
and the uses for which they are intended. The latter is a practical and
highly important enquiry ; as great difference of opinion exists among
engineers and others as to the form, strength, and proportions of rivets,
and the joints of which they form an essential part. I therefore considered
an experimental investigation much wanted, not only on account of its
important practical bearing, but what was probably of equal value, in order
to remove existing discrepancies, and to establish a sounder principle of
construction founded upon the unerring basis of experiment. From these
considerations I bestowed increased attention upon the enquiry, and
endeavoured to render it practically useful.
The paper was divided into four parts.
The first part was on the strength of
wrought-iron plates to resist tearing asunder by direct tensile strains.
This was illustrated by an account of twenty experiments on plates made of
iron of different qualities.
The second part treated of the strength of the
joints of iron plates when united by rivets, and on the best modes of
riveting. A number of experiments were tried on riveted joints, formed in
many varieties of ways, and the general mean result was that, considering
the strength of the solid plate itself to be 100, that of a single-riveted
joint (i.e. having the rivets disposed in one row), might be taken at 56,
while if the joint were double-riveted (i.e. if the rivets were disposed in
two rows), the strength would be 70, showing, in any case, a considerable
loss of strength.
The third part of the paper treated of the
strength of wrought-iron plates to withstand a force applied perpendicularly
to one point in their surface, tending to indent or bulge them in, or if
great, to burst them open; as, for example, in the case where the hull of an
iron ship would strike against a projecting rock.
The fourth part was an investigation of the
strength and value of the wrought-iron frames or ribs used in shipbuilding.
The strengths of these, when in different shapes, were shown, and inferences
were drawn as to the best forms and modes of construction.
In the course of the paper Mr. Fairbairn took
occasion frequently to speak of the comparison between wood and iron as a
material for ship-building. He said:—
In conclusion, I would venture a few remarks on
the value and judicious use of iron in its adaptation to ship-building. It
appears from the I facts already recorded, that iron is very superior in its
powers of resistance to strain; it is1 highly ductile in its character, and
easily moulded into any required form without impairing its strength. It is
also stronger in combination than timber, arising from the nature of the
construction ; and the materials composing the iron ship become a
homogeneous mass when united together, forming as it were a solid, without
joints, and presenting as a whole the most formidable powers of resistance.
These are some of the properties which cannot be obtained in the union of
timber, however ingeniously contrived. It moreover possesses the property of
lightness along with strength; in fact its buoyancy, strength, and
durability constitute the elements of its utility in the innumerable cases
to which it may be applied. In ship-building it possesses other advantages
over timber. Its hull is free from the risk of fire ; and in case of
shipwreck, either on rocks or sandbanks, it will resist the heaviest sea,
endure the severest concussion, and with proper attention to the
construction it may be the means of saving the lives of all on board. It
moreover has the advantage of bulkheads, which, made perfectly watertight,
not only strengthen the vessel, but give greater security to it, and by a
judicious arrangement in the divisions will float the ship under the adverse
circumstance of a leak occurring in any one of the compartments.
These are the qualities anil the powers of the
iron ship; and I trust the present research into the strength and
proportions of the material of which it is composed, will not only give
increased confidence in its security, but w ill lead to an extension of its
application in every branch of marine and mechanical architecture.
There was also added a mathematical
investigation relative to the experiments, contributed, at Mr. Fairbairn's
request, by Mr. Tate.
The paper was selected by the Council of the
Royal Society for publication in the quarto ' Philosophical Transactions' an
honour awarded only to those papers that are considered of special
scientific merit, and it accordingly appeared in the volume for 1850, page
077. It occupies 50 pages, and is illustrated with many tables and with five
Mr. Fairbairn, in his autobiographical notes,
speaks of this paper as one of the most important he had ever undertaken. He
These experiments were of great value, as they
not only determined the strength and other properties of the iron, but they
exhibited what was of greater importance, namely, that the riveted joint was
little more than one-half the strength of the plate itself. These
discoveries led to further experiments, which resulted in the single,
double, and chain riveting joints being subsequently used in all
well-proportioned and well-constructed iron ships. The principles they
disclosed have been adopted in her Majesty's dockyards, and for many years
have been in use throughout the kingdom.
At the meeting of the British Association in
1853, at Hull, he read a paper ' On the Mechanical Properties of Metals as
derived from repeated Meltings, exhibiting the Maximum Point of Strength,
and the Causes of Doterioration.'
This paper was written in pursuance of a request
from the Association passed at the meeting of 1850. The object was to throw
light on certain anomalous conditions observed by practical ironfounders in
regard to the use of their material. It is the habit frequently to melt
iron, for casting purposes, again and again, and it had been observed, or
rather conjectured by certain appearances, that re-melting improved the
quality. The object of Mr. Fairbairn's enquiries was to determine this, and
to ascertain with precision the conditions of the problem. Numerous
elaborate experiments were made, and the result seemed to be a gradual
improvement, both in strength and elasticity, up to about the twelfth
melting, beyond which a sudden and rapid deterioration set in.
In regard to this, Dr. Robinson, of Armagh,
wrote to Mr. Fairbairn, as follows, dated May 28, 1855:—
I have only recently got the report of the Hull
meeting of the British Association, and have just read your interesting
report on the effect of repeated fusion on the strength of cast-iron. I was
greatly struck by the abrupt loss of strength and the silvery grain assumed
by the iron, and fear you have not kept the fragments; but if they are to be
found, it would be very desirable to have a chemical analysis made of the
iron so changed, and another of the original quality.
My reason is this : Many years ago, while
working at chemistry, I reduced mixtures of lime and oxide of iron in
charcoal crucibles at an extremely intense heat. The buttons sometimes
contained the metallic basis of lime; they were excessively hard, and their
fracture was fine and silvery. Now the repeated fusion with lime and coke
seems not unlikely to alloy the iron with calcium. We want greatly, by the
way, a well-arranged set of experiments on the combination of the metals of
the earths with iron, which I suspect play an important part, especially in
In 1854 Mr. Fairbairn published his second book,
the title of which was, 'On the Application of Cast and Wrought Iron to
Building Purposes.' It was originally intended to be an essay on 'Beams and
Bridges,' more general in its scope than the former work on the Menai
structures, and containing fuller information resulting from the large
experience the firm had had in the manufacture of such works. But it was
afterwards extended to other applications of iron.
The author says in his preface:—
In the following pages I have endeavoured to
collect the sum of our practical knowledge on the use of iron, in its
combination with other materials, iu the construction of fire-proof
buildings. Tlie subject is one of vast public importance. It is undeniable
that great want of judgment has been displayed in many examples of buildings
even of very recent date, and it is to be lamented that so much ignorance of
those undewiating laws which govern the strength of materials should still
prevail. Experimentalists and mathematicians have provided the knowledge,
but practitioners I fear have, in a great degree, failed to avail themselves
Part I. treats of cast-iron beams for supporting
the floors of buildings, giving many experiments on their form and strength,
and the influence on them of various disturbing causes.
Part II. treats, in the same manner, of beams of
the lighter and stronger material, wrought-iron.
Part III. refers to the construction of
fire-proof warehouses, and the work concludes with a general description of
the mill at Saltaire.
The book is dedicated to Sir David Brewster, and
the following letter, from a well-known literary man, refers to a
presentation copy sent to the writer :—
68 Lincoln's Inn Fields, May 10, 1854.
My dear Sir,—I have received with the greatest
pleasure the volume you have kindly sent me, of which I mean to read every
word. So far from connecting you with 'plain matter of fact,' I regard you,
and men like you, as the great enchanters of modern time. What we mere
bookmen used in old days to do with fiction and fancy, you now more nobly
accomplish with fact and philosophy, and are properly become the leaders of
the world. May your Government last long, and be as beneficently
administered as it has been justly obtained.
Always, my dear sir,
Most sincerely yours,
Wm. Fairbairn, Esq.
A second edition of the work was brought out in
1857, incorporating a new part of considerable length, on the construction
of bridges formed of malleable iron beams or girders. A third edition
appeared in 1864, containing a few further additions.
It was also translated into French, by M. L.
Ferret, in 1855.
In 1850, Messrs. Black, of Edinburgh, the
publishers of the ' Encyclopedia Britannica,' applied to Mr. Fairbairn to
re-write the article ' Iron' for the eighth edition of that work, which was
then in process of publication. The publishers felt it was desirable to
introduce into this edition a notice of the many improvements that had been
effected in the iron manufacture; and knowing how completely Mr. Fairbairn
had identified himself with the use of the material, they selected him as
the best qualified person to undertake what they desired. It was soon found
that it would be scarcely possible to alter satisfactorily the former
article, and it was accordingly determined that he should write an entirely
The article contains twelve chapters, and is
copiously illustrated with woodcuts, not the vague imperfect things
publishers too often produce in scientific works, but prepared, as might be
expected, from accurate engineering drawings.
Mr. Fairbairn acknowledged, in this article, the
assistance he had received from many friends, who had furnished him with
novel information on special points. Among these was his old friend Mr.
James Nasmyth, who sent him complete descriptions of his steam hammer, an
invention which was then only recent, but which may be said to have almost
revolutionised the iron manufacture, by increasing to an enormous extent
the; magnitude of its operations.
Mr. Nasmyth, in forwarding the particulars to
Mr. Fairbairn, said:—
I am very happy to know that the article ' Iron
' has fallen into such able and authentic hands; and I am sure you will not
only render it worthy of the theme, but also worthy of yourself, which is
With respect to the description of the steam
hammer, would fain that you gave it in your own words, as I don't like to do
anything that savours of the 'Use Warren's Blacking' system. The steam
hammer is so well known and so simple, that a mere figure of it is
description enough. I am but a poor tool in the literary line; had I but the
powers that you so happily possess, wouldn't I hold forth on things in
general, and steam hammers in particular! The steam hammer has really been a
great help in the mechanical arts, and will do more and more yet. I am at
No. 489; they are making them by the thousand on the Continent and in
America, but I am well satisfied with my share.
The article was so much approved that, a few
years after it appeared, the publishers reprinted it as a separate book, Mr.
Fairbairn having the opportunity of correcting the imperfections in the 'Encyclopaedia'
copy, and of adding some new matter.
It was afterwards translated into French, with
additions, by M. Gustave Maurier.
In 1856, Mr. Fairbairn brought out another work,
entitled:—'Useful Information for Engineers, being a series of lectures
delivered to the working engineers of Yorkshire and Lancashire. Together
with a series of appendices containing the results of experimental enquiries
into the strength of materials, the causes of boiler explosions, &c..'
The title will explain pretty clearly what the
work consists of. Mr. Fairbairn had frequently delivered lectures to
Mechanics' Associations and other similar institutions iu the manufacturing
districts. -These had sometimes been printed in ephemeral pamphlets, or
abstracts had been given of them in still more ephemeral local journals; but
they were inaccessible to engineers in general, and the author reaped no
profit from them, and but little fame. He consequently determined to collect
and publish them in a volume.
In the preface he says, in his justification :—
In presuming to offer useful information to the
members of an important profession, I would especially guard myself against
an undue assumption of personal merit, and rather rest the justification of
the title given to the present volume upon (he well-grounded opinion that
the elementary principles of science are too much neglected in the study and
practice of engineering.
It is generally admitted that one of the most
popular and useful forms of imparting knowledge to others is that of public
and entertaining lectures, and I may therefore state that the lectures which
I have now the opportunity of publishing were mostly prepared at the request
of the directors of the various educational institutions of the north of
England, and delivered to the mixed assemblies of their members. The
circumstances of passing events gave to some of the addresses considerable
local and temporary interest; but it does not by any means follow that, thus
hastily conceived, the subjects of which they treated were wanting in
permanent value and importance to the mechanical student.....My object was
to impart to working engineers, in intelligible and simple terms, all I
myself knew of the varied branches of practical science which their calling
embraces; and hence my main reliance was on the results of my own practice
The volume contains ten lectures, chiefly on
steam and steam boilers. It was so well received by the public that it went
through several editions, and the author was induced afterwards to follow it
up with further collections of the same kind.
In 1859 Sir. Fairbairn presented a short memoir
to the British Association, entitled 'Experiments to determine the
efficiency of continuous and self-acting Brakes for Railway Trains;' but he
afterwards re-wrote the paper in a more elaborated form, and submitted it to
the Institution of Civil Engineers, where it was read on April 17, 1860.
In March 1860 he read an important paper before
the Institution of Naval Architects, on ' The Strength of Iron Ships.'
He said that former investigations had related
principally either to the strength of the material itself, or to the
detailed arrangements of its use, riveted joints, &c. Nothing, however, had
been done in determining the strength of an iron ship as a great whole, and
this it was the object of the paper to do.
It explained the cases in which large iron ships
might become strained in actual use. A ship might, for example, get on two
rocks, one at each end, and so be without support in the middle; or she
might lodge upon a single rock in the middle of her length, leaving the two
ends overhanging. He pointed out that of late years it had been found
convenient to increase the length of iron vessels to as much as eight or
nine times their breadth of beam, partly to obtain an increase of speed by
giving fine sharp lines to the bow and stern, and partly to secure an
increase of capacity for the same midship section. This, he pointed out,
seriously compromised the strength of the ship if she ever got into
circumstances of the kind alluded to. And he remarked that even
independently of the possibility of being stranded, the ordinary
circumstances of floating under the swell of a heavy rolling sea would
subject a ship to strains similar in nature, although less in amount.
Reasoning from the known laws established in
regard to large iron tubes, he went on to determine the nature of the
strains, and to compare them with the strength actually put into ships as
ordinarily built; and he showed how insufficient was the resistance of the
lie then proceeded to explain how the defect
might be remedied, by adding to the strength in certain ways which he
pointed out and illustrated by diagrams and calculations.
In ] 800 he brought out a second series of '
Useful Information for Engineers,' containing reprints of four scientific
papers contributed by him to scientific societies, and of eight lectures he
had delivered at various places and times.
This volume was dedicated to General (now Sir)
Edward Sabine, President of the Royal Society, who, in acknowledging the
August 17. 1860.
This morning's post brought me your kind
present, and I have read its inscription to myself with a gratification
which I shall not attempt to describe.....
I regard the honour this inscription confers as
one of the greatest which I have ever received; and on which I may reflect
with confidence, should I ever be tempted to think that my life has been
passed in vain.
At the Oxford meeting of the British Association
in 1800, Mr. Fairbairn contributed a Report of:—Expert-merits to determine
the effect of vibratory actions and long-continued changes of load on
The frequent occurrence of accidents to railway
trains by the fracture of wheel tyres and axles, and other iron parts of the
engines or carriages, had raised an important question, whether the material
suffered in its molecular structure by the repeated and long-continued
blows, vibrations, and jarrings to which it was subject during the working
of the trains. It had often been noticed that the parts so fractured
exhibited a structure not favourable for strength and toughness, but it had
been difficult to determine whether this was so originally, or whether such
a condition had been induced by use. As is generally the case in difficult
problems, all sorts of recondite explanations were volunteered ; electrical,
magnetic, and chemical agencies were supposed to be at work, and it was
often assumed that either by these, or by purely mechanical influences, the
structure of the iron really underwent some deteriorating change.
There had, however, always been a want of
positive proof of the fact; and it therefore occurred to engineers of a more
practical mind that it might be possible to get, by direct experiment, some
conclusive evidence whether the change was real or only imaginary. The Iron
Structure Commission of 1849 had tried some experiments, but Mr. Fairbairn
considered they were incomplete, and he therefore instituted others on a
more comprehensive scale. lie directed attention chiefly to bridge girders
of wrought-iron, with the view of testing whether the repeated passage of
trains would produce any injury, and he contrived an apparatus by which a
load could be alternately applied and removed for a great number of times.
This was continued till the changes had reached a million and a half, and
the results were thus expressed:—
It would appear, therefore, that with a load
equal to one-fourth the breaking weight, the structure undergoes no
deterioration in the molecular structure, and, provided a sufficient margin
of strength is given, say from five to six times the working load, there is
every reason to believe from the results of the above experiments that
girders composed of good material and of sound workmanship are
indestructible, so far as regards mere vibratory action.
At the Manchester meeting the next year, he
reported a continuation of the experiments, confirming the results in the
In 18t54 he embodied the foregoing results in a
paper which was read before the Royal Society on February 4 in that year,
and was published in the ' Philosophical Transactions, vol. cliv.
About this time Mr. Fairbairn brought out an
important work on a subject peculiarly his own, namely, a ' Treatise on
Mills and Mill work. It was in two volumes or parts. Part I. appeared in
1801, and Part II. in 1863.
The editor of the present biography had occasion
to review Mr. Fairbairn's book for a scientific periodical soon after its
publication, and ventures to insert here some extracts from the opinions on
it then expressed:—
It has often been remarked that, although the
English have been in advance of all other nations in the practice of
engineering, they have been sadly behindhand in its literature. Indeed, it
has become a proverb that we have executed works for others to describe; and
the students of engineering know well that the best accounts of many of our
most important engineering operations must be sought for in the publications
of France and Germany.
In regard to the great branch of the profession
comprehended under the name of mechanical engineering, the want of
correspondence between onr literature and our progress is most striking. We
need not dwell on the fact that we are, and have long been, the first
mechanicians in the world; but it is no less true that the evidence of this
fact which will go down to posterity on the shelves of our libraries will be
meagre in the extreme.
It is, therefore, with much satisfaction, that
we greet the production of the veteran mechanic whose name appears at the
head of onr article. He had founded, at an early part of his life, a firm in
Manchester who have since become celebrated for the designs and manufacture
of machinery in great variety, and on a very extensive scale ; and it is
more especially to the illustrations of modern machinery, derived from the
archives of this firm, that the present work owes its value.
The first volume is devoted to the general
principles of mechanism and to prime movers. After a chapter of ten pages
(which might have been much extended with advantage) on the history of
mills, a discourse follows on the theory of mechanism, and the remainder of
the book is occupied with notices of the modes by which water, steam, and
wind are made available as sources of mechanical power. In regard to the
former of these, Mr. Fairbairn has not confined himself, as previous authors
have done, to the treatment of the machines for making use of the power, but
he has traced the moving agent back to its source in the clouds, and
followed in detail the circumstances of its fall, its distribution, its
storage, and its conveyance to the point where it is to become useful. The
construction of water wheels and other hydraulic machines is also given very
fully—it is a department to which the author has evidently devoted much
attention ; and this division of the book forms the best and most
comprehensive essay on water power we have seen. We are the more pleased
with this, because, since the general introduction of steam, water-power has
been far too lightly esteemed.
The second part of the work is still more
technical than the former, consisting, first, of chapters on wheels, straps,
shafts, and couplings; and, secondly, information on the arrangement
1 This was written in 186-3; since that date the
advanced education which has spread among the engineering profession hap
induced a much more copious literature, as well as p higher tone of thought.
of mills of various kinds—for corn, cotton,
woollen fabrics, flax, silk, oil, paper, gunpowder, and iron. This latter
division is, if we mistake not, almost entirely a novelty in engineering
literature—the only similar attempt we remember being contained in an old
work, called 'Nicholson's Operative Mechanic,' which, though popular in its
day, is now quite obsolete. We could find much in these essays to remark on,
if we were writing a technical review; but we must here content ourselves
with recommending the work as supplying a want of long standing, and as
calculated to be of much practical utility. It is illustrated profusely with
woodcuts, and contains also several plates, well drawn and engraved.
In 1865 Mr. Fairbairn brought out a 'Treatise on
Iron Shipbuilding;' which he dedicated to the Duke of Somerset, then First
Lord of the Admiralty.
It is an octavo volume of 300 pages ; the
earlier chapters treat of the laws of strains, the properties of iron, and
the modes of jointing; the later portions refer to iron armour and the
effect of projectiles, with remarks generally on ships of war. The book
contains also a theoretical essay on the strength of materials, contributed
by Mr. Tate.
In 1866 appeared a Third Series of the 'Useful
Information for Engineers,' containing, as before, several lectures and
papers on miscellaneous subjects.
This volume was dedicated to Lord Brougham.
In 1869 Mr. Fairbairn gave his aid in the
preparation of a work entitled 'Lancashire and Cheshire, Past and Present,'
by Mr. Thomas Baines. The book was a large and handsome one, in four volumes
quarto, giving a full history and topographical description of the two
counties, and it was illustrated by many engravings of the scenery,
buildings, and worthies of the locality.
Mr. Baines wisely saw that as subjects of a
technical and industrial character entered so largely into the interest
attaching to the county of Lancashire, it would be well to get some expert
to write the portion of the book treating of these matters; and he
accordingly applied to Mr. Fairbairn, who responded with his usual public
His contribution to the work was a very
important feature of it, forming of itself one quarto volume of 2C0 pages,
and it was probably the largest book he ever wrote. It had a separate
title—' The Eise and Progress of Manufactures and Commerce, and of Civil and
Mechanical Engineering, in Lancashire and Cheshire.'
He says in his preface :—
When I was invited to write this work I
entertained grave doubts of my own competency. The task seemed to require
rather the descriptive powers of the historian than the bare matter of fact
views of the engineer ; and I must, therefore, crave the indulgence of the
reader for the imperfections which will doubtless be found in my treatment
of a large subject. If I have failed to make the essay as attractive as a
more fluent writer might have done, I have, at least, endeavoured to bring
together a mass of information which will be useful to the student who may
desire to weigh and appreciate the wonderful development of this great
centre of manufacturing industry.
I have endeavoured to trace the influence which
the progress of manufacturing enterprise has had upon national character.
The rapid growth and present high state of perfection of the trades touched
upon in the following pages have raised the mechanics and artisans from mere
labourers into a class remarkable for their intelligence, skill, and
perseverance. They aiw now a great power in the state—one to be guided by
wise laws and liberal encouragement, to the exercise of infinite good, but
also capable of producing great evil to themselves and others, if their
association and organisation are not regulated by high principles and sound
The book is (like the main body of the work to
which it is attached) somewhat desultory and ill-arranged, and it is
difficult to give a precise summary of its contents; but it contains a great
deal of valuable information, historical and descriptive. Among the subjects
treated of are the scientific institutions of Liverpool and Manchester, and
the engineering works of the district, such as the canals, the railways, the
water supply, the docks, and the landing stages : the engineering and iron
trades, and the cotton manufacture, are also fully described.
Mr. Fairbairn was engaged on this work from
August 1867 to July 1869, but he received no remuneration for his labour,
charging only a trilling sum for the expenses of drawings. We do not even
see, in the preface to the main work, any acknowledgment of the service he
Sir William's last literary production was a
paper read before the Royal Society on April 26,1873, ' On the Durability
and Preservation of Iron Ships, and on Riveted Joints.'
The author, as an experienced iron shipbuilder,
discussed the liability of such structures to injury by corrosion, which he
believed might be entirely prevented by proper care and watchfulness; and he
recommended the same measure which he had found so beneficial in the case of
boilers, namely, periodical inspection.
He further treated various questions in regard
to riveted joints, such as the relative merits of machine and hand riveting,
the comparative effect of drilling and punching in forming the holes; and
the paper was accompanied by various tables and theoretical investigations.
Mr. Fairbairn was in great request as a
lecturer, and received frequent invitations to deliver lectures at
scientific societies, mechanics' institutions, and the like, which he
generally complied with if he could. Borne of these lectures were printed at
the time in separate pamphlets, and some were republished by him in the
'Useful Information for Engineers.'
Independently, however, of regular lecturing, he
had many calls upon him to take the chair at anniversary; meetings,
distribution of prizes, &c., and he generally gave at each meeting an
address appropriate to the object. On all these occasions his great
popularity never failed to attract large audiences, and to give eclat to the
institutions that asked his aid.
His last address was on October 28, 1873, at a
meeting of the Manchester Scientific and Mechanical Society, of which he was
president. Although suffering from severe illness and very weak, he
contrived to write the address; but when the day came he was unable to leave
his bed, and it was read by the secretary. A few extracts will show that age
had done nothing to diminish the sound practical sense he had always
manifested on such occasions :—
It is a source of pride to bear witness to the
inventions and discoveries that have been effected in machine making in
every department of industry. In the beauty, exactitude, and mathematical
accuracy of these constructions, we stand unequalled ; and we have only to
refer to the International Exhibition of 1851 and its successors to be
assured that rapid strides and improvements haM been silently but
progressively going on, not only in the machinery then in use, but the
introduction of tin self-acting principle, so much wanted and so eagerly
looked for in every manufacturing process where it could be introduced.
And here it is only just to state that the
introduction of new machinery and the self-acting principle owed much of
their efficacy and ingenuity to the system of strikes, which compelled the
employers of labour to fall back upon their own resources, and to execute,
by machinery and new inventions; work which was formerly done by hand. Let
me give an example which strikingly illustrates the benefits as well as the
inconveniences of a sudden cessation of labour. Some forty years ago, when 1
undertook the manufacture of boilers, I had large orders on hand, and being
Tin-willing to allow the men to dictate the terms on which I should engage
apprentices and conduct the work, I received notice of a turn out, which
immediately took place, and the works were suspended for a number of weeks.
In this dilemma, with impatient customers, I was driven to the necessity of
supplying the place of riveters by a passive and unerring machine, which
from that day to this has never complained, and did as much work in one day
as was formerly accomplished by twelve of our best riveters and assistants
in the same time, and executing the work with greater perfection than could
possibly be done by the hammer. This is not the only example of the effects
of strikes that may be quoted, as I might instance the late Mr. Roberts,
with his self-seting mule and other inventions, which produced much benefit.
I have stated that we have reason to be proud of
the numerous inventions and discoveries that have been made in the machinery
for the manufacture of the textile fabrics. We must not, however, run off
with the idea that we are the only improvers and inventors; on the contrary,
we are on many occasions far behind, and I am anxious to impress upon the
Society the necessity for exertion iu every scientific pursuit, if we are to
maintain our position aud cope with the natives of other countries who have
equal opportunities and are better educated than ourselves. This is actually
the case in France, Switzerland, and Germany, and in the United States we
have to contend with intelligent and very powerful rivals in both the
scientific and the industrial arts.
I have dealt largely on the necessity of our
members having a knowledge of first principles, and that all their designs
and constructions must be founded on the unalterable laws of scientific
truth. I intended to have said that the age of the rule of thumb was at au
end, and that any design, however perfect and however ingenious in its
development, is utterly useless unless it is also a work of science. It is
true that great works have been sometimes accomplished by the master minds
of men without education, but how much move certain and how much more
perfect are the emanations and works of such men as James Watt, Smeaton, and
others who have combined science with their discoveries.
As compared with many other professions,
engineering has been in a dormant state within a period in my own
recollection. In the year 1804, when I first entered business as an
apprentice, there were not in the whole kingdom above half a dozen persons
deserving the name of engineer. I recollect quite well when I first entered
Manchester, in 1813, that the only important tools then in vogue were a few
common lathes, a screw-cutter, and a boring machine for steam engine
cylinders. These facts show the low ebb at which mechanical science was
fifty years ago, and how much we are indebted to the late Mr. Roberts and
our talented friend Sir Joseph Whitworth and others for the introduction of
new and more perfect tool machinery, which has given not only mathematical
precision, but almost a creative power—-as one machine creates another.
In Mr. Fairbairn's more important writings, and
in the experimental investigations the}' related to, he availed himself
freely of such assistance as he felt would be useful to him, and this he
always honourably acknowledged. He was not a deep mathematician, and
mathematical reasoning was often necessary for the reduction and
generalisation of his experiments, and for the clear exposition of the
In his earlier publications he was assisted in
this way by Mr. Thomas Tate, mathematical master of Battersea Training
School. But at a later period, when he began to devote himself more
earnestly to scientific work, lie engaged as secretary a young engineer, Mr.
W. O. Unwin, who, having had a good theoretical training, was able to take
this work permanently for him. Mr. Unwin was with him from 1855 to 1863,
during which time he gave active aid in the many important investigations
undertaken by Mr. Fairbairn, and in the publications recording them,
particularly those referring to boilers, the properties of steam, the
strength of materials, submarine cables, railway brakes, and iron armour.
Mr. Fairbairn always expressed a high opinion of Mr. Unwin's ability and the
value of his assistance, and he now occupies an eminent position as one of
the professors of engineering at the Royal East Indian Engineering College,