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The Life of Sir William Fairbairn, Bart
Chapter VIII - Water-Wheels at Catrine Bank - Connection with Escher - Journey to the Continent and work there


Six years passed in this manner, each succeeding year adding to the general stock, when in 1824 we had a visit from Mr. Buchanan, of Catrine Bank, in Ayrshire, the partner of Kirkman Finlay, the then member for Glasgow. The object of his visit was to establish an entirely new arrangement of the water-power of the Catrine Cotton Works; and here again Mr. Kennedy was our friend and adviser. I had been recommended to Mr. Buchanan as a person well able to devise, plan, and execute the work; and after several meetings and conversations, I was engaged to visit Ayrshire and spend a fortnight at Catrine Bank.

This was an important undertaking. The mills were extensive. and the water-wheels and steam-engines then at work were estimated at between 200 and 300 horse-power.

The Catrine Cotton Works are situated on the banks of the river Ayr, about fifteen miles from the town of that name. The mills were built by the late Mr. Alexander, of Balochmyle, and were worked by him, I believe not very successfully. About 1793 they came into the hands of Messrs. James Finlay and Co., Kirkman Fridav being the leading partner of the firm, and Mr. Buchanan took charge of the new works at Catrine.

The machinery of the mills was driven by four water-wheels, erected by Mr. Lowe, of Nottingham. His work, heavy and clumsy as it was, had in a certain way answered the purpose, and as cotton-mills were then in their infancy he was the only person qualified from experience to undertake the construction of the gearing. Mr. Lowe was therefore in demand in every part of the kingdom where a cotton-factory had to be built.

The water-wheels at Catrine were ill-constructed, deficient in power, and constantly breaking down or getting out of repair. This was a grievous drawback at a time when trade was good, and to remedy the evil Mr. Buchanan erected two 40-horse-power steam-engines, which for some years kept the works going, but at a considerable sacrifice arising from repeated failures in the water-wheels. The evil at last became so great, that Mr. Buchanan and his partners in Glasgow came to the determination to pull them out, and remodel the whole of their motive power on an improved and more efficient principle. It was in this condition of the works that I was requested to make a journey to Scotland, and arrange matters with Mr. Buchanan for the changes and alterations contemplated.

In conformity with these views, I was soon on the road to Scotland, and having reached Catrine Bank the day after my departure from Manchester I was most kindly and hospitably received, and the next morning commenced a thorough and complete survey of the whole establishment. It was not long before I discovered the evils under which the concern had laboured, and I did not hesitate to recommend a concentration of the whole of the motive power, and that instead of dividing a fall of forty-seven feet into two, the two falls should be united on two powerful wheels, each fifty feet in diameter, and 120, collectively 240, horse-power. This was computed to be equal to the entire resistance of the machinery in all the mills, and by a proper form of bucket, and a judicious application of the water, they were considered amply sufficient to turn the whole of the then existing machinery without the aid of steam. In order, however, to provide for future contingencies and extension of the works, it was considered advisable to make provisions in the watercourses, tail run, and main gearing, for two more wheels of the same power and dimensions as those intended to be made, and thus to provide increased water-power incase of an increase of the machinery. Another inducement to these enlarged views was the existence of an extensive reservoir, which some years before had been constructed on the high grounds near Muirkirk, to regulate the quantity of water in the Ayr, and afford supplies in dry seasons.

Having arranged the preliminaries, I set to work; and in the course of a week I had the whole kid down to a scale, and in less than a month from that date the order was given, and the work was in progress at Manchester.

The construction of the Catrine wheels, apart from the profits arising from the transaction as a matter of business, was one of the most interesting and most gratifying circumstances I ever experienced in the whole of my professional career. My plans were approved, the prices proposed were accepted, and the works were completed in a manner highly satisfactory, not only to Mr. Buchanan and myself, but to every other person of the firm. The two first waterwheels were started in June 1827; they have never lost a day since that time, and they remain, even at the present day, probably the most perfect hydraulic machines of the kind in Europe. Mr. Buchanan was a true citizen of the world; noted for simplicity, benevolence, and goodness of heart. He was the poor man's friend, the good Samaritan, the father of his people. To these qualifications he united an excellent flow of spirits, an inexhaustible fund of anecdotes, and a dry broad humour that enlightened every countenance, and often kept the table in a roar. He was moreover well educated, a great reader, and possessed of an extraordinary budget of miscellaneous and useful information.

Simultaneously with the construction of the Catrine water-wheels, we had other works of importance to attend to; and as an instance I may here give an account of a journey which I made in the autumn of the year 1824 to Switzerland, for the purpose of erecting and remodelling another mill, and erecting two water-wheels for Mr. G. Escher, of Zurich. That gentleman visited Manchester for the first time in 1814, and again in 1824 when I first made his acquaintance. In early life he studied architecture in Italy, and for some time he served in the Austrian Artillery under the Archduke Charles, who commanded along with the Russian General Suwarrow, the combined armies against the French under Massena. At the commencement of the present century he built a small cotton-mill on one of the bastions of the fortifications of Zurich, and during the revolutionary wars it was alternately in the hands of the French, the Austrians, and the Russians. When the town was bombarded the mill escaped injury, with the exception of a single shot, which did little or no damage. On one occasion, it was, however, on the point of being reduced to ashes by a battery erected an the other side of the Limmat, for the purpose of dislodging a strong force of Russians who were in possession of that part of the town, when Mr. Eseher, to save the only mill in Switzerland, presented himself at head-quarters, and obtained a promise from the French general that the mill should be respected, which promise was faithfully kept, notwithstanding a tremendous cannonading which took place on other parts of the bastion only a few yards distant. The following day found the French in possession of the town, and the Austrian and Russian armies in a new position in the valley of the I.immat, some miles distant.

Such were the early attempts at cotton-spinning in Switzerland, and such were the troubles my friend had to contend with in a country which for many years was the seat of war. The celebrated physiognomist, Lavater, lost his life on the occasion referred to above, either in his endeavours to interfere in a desperate conflict between some French and Russian soldiers, or, according to some accounts, by an accidental shot when walking in his own garden.

The constant alarm and exposure to destruction seriously affected the peaceful operations of Mr. Escher's mill; and it was not till some time after the retreat from Moscow, and the battle of Leipsic, that Mr. Escher could calculate on security, either for life or property. The whole of the manufactures on the frontiers were in a similarly precarious condition: and I believe one large establishment in Alsace was for some weeks occupied as a barrack, and nearly the whole of the machinery seriously injured. Napoleon in 1814 liberated and enlarged the views of the spinners and manufacturers of the Continent. Mr. Escher and many others visited for the first time the far-famed town of industry, Manchester, and arrangements were then made for extending those branches of industry in every department where it had located itself on the line of the Rhenish frontier. My firm had the good fortune to be selected for that purpose, and the first of our business connections took place with Mr. Escher on the occasion of his visit to Manchester in 1824.

Mr. Escher, now that the peace of Europe was finally settled, contemplated an extension of his cotton-mills, and in order to prepare his son, Mr. Albert Escher, then seventeen years of age, to be his successor, he brought him to .Manchester to perfect his education on the English system as a spinner and manufacturer. In addition to a knowledge of cotton and yarn, I undertook to allow him free admission to our works, and to give him such instruction in practical mechanics as my limited time would allow. I further agreed to return with Mr. Escher to Zurich to inspect his establishment on the Linmat, and devise means for increasing his water-power, and for driving a new mill which he had erected the previous year immediately adjoining the old one, which had survived the conflicts of contending armies, and which was then in active and successful operation.

The industry of all nations was then bursting into new life, and the prospects of a good understanding and a long peace amongst nations gave renewed energy to the industrial resources of every country in Europe. Switzerland was rising into notice, and both France and Germany, in resting from the labours and expense of raising armies, and from all the distressing and conflicting elements of war, were settling down into a state of repose extremely favourable to the cultivation of the useful arts and the development of manufactures. These results were just beginning to show themselves, when in 1824 I first visited the Continent, and having made excursions to most of the manufacturing establishments in Alsace and the department of the Vosges, I bad an opportunity of witnessing a spirit of enterprise and a prosperity to which these countries had for many years been strangers. It was highly gratifying to my fellow-traveller and friend, Mr. Escher, as well as to myself, to be received with the greatest good-will and hospitality by every manufacturer in France. The name of Fairbairn and Lillie was known to them before my arrival, and they were glad to avail themselves of my experience as a mechanical engineer and a person intimately connected with the manufactures, and to receive such instructions and suggestions as I was able to furnish.

The result was several extensive orders for water-wheels, mill-gearing, &c., on our new principle of construction. As this journey was fraught with interest, and affords the most pleasing recollections, I may recall a few of the incidents and early impressions of my first journey to France.

In travelling through France, at that time the cheapest and most expeditious plan for more than one person was to buy a carriage and post. The regulations were good, charges moderate, and horses always ready when you arrived at the end of the stage. Mr. Escher, having his son with him, had posted with his own carriage from Zurich to Calais, where we found it on our arrival at the hotel, on our landing from the packet on the.8th of August.

Our journey lay through St. Oraer to Lille, where we remained for a day, and called on some of the leading manufacturers of the place. Here, again, everything was new to me; the fortifications, drawbridges, ramparts, and esplanades, and the peculiar dress of the military, were all new and attractive. I am a great lover of old towns, such as can only be seen in France; full of historical recollections of the numerous contests in which that singular people have been engaged.

The following day brought us to Paris, and we entered this brightest of cities shortly after sunrise.

On reaching the capital I found much of it known to me from my previous reading. The Tuileries, the Louvre, the Palais Royal, the Champ de Mars, the Champs Elysees, and many other places, were familiar; and I soon found my way on foot through almost every part of the city. The old parts of the town, beyond the Pont Neuf, were particularly inviting, as I found I could identify some of the lodgings of the poor students, and of some of my own countrymen who used to be located here during the days of the Cavaliers, and the Scotch College, then the principal seat of education for the better classes in that country. There is something of the sublime and venerable creeps over the stranger as he saunters through the narrow streets of this part of Paris; the very filth smells of antiquity; and even to this day I never revisit the gay city without strolling amidst the narrow streets and tall houses of the Paris of former days.

A week's sojourn in Paris enabled me, through the kind assistance of my friend, to see everything worthy of note; and the Monday succeeding our arrival found us again on the road, via Troves, Vesoul, and Belfort, to Switzerland. We travelled night and day, but made a short detour in order to visit some manufacturing works in the neighbourhood. We also visited some ironworks to look at a new horizontal water-wheel, since so well known as the Turbine. Here I was introduced to Mr. Fonrueyron, the inventor, who was then only known as an ingenious mechanic, but whose persevering labours have procured for his invention a lasting name in the annals of science.

The following morning found us at breakfast at the Three Kings Hotel, Basle, where I first saw the Rhine.

From Basle we took the German side of the Rhine, crossed Massenars military wooden bridge, and passed through the battered walls of Rheinfeld; we hurried on through the little town of Brugg, at the confluence of the Aar and the Limmat, and next evening we reached Mr. Escher's delightful country residence on the banks of the Lake of Zurich.

Three weeks were spent in this delightful country, partly in devising the necessary alterations and improvements for the cotton-works, and partly in short excursions on the Lakes Wallenstadt, Lucerne, and Zurich. At the mill there was a great deal to do, and for ten days I was constantly employed in surveys of the river, and in making arrangements of the machinery, millwork, &c., for driving the new, and renovating the old, mill. This latter was driven by two old wheels, which in certain seasons, when the snows were melting on the Alps, and in winter, when the water was low, were scarcely able to drive the machinery. We had now two mills to drive by the same water, and in order to double the power and render it uniform as well as efficient at all seasons, it was necessary to improve the principle and enlarge the capacity of the wheels to an extent suitable to that portion of the river to which Mr. Escher was entitled. I had further to consider how to obviate the difficulty under which they laboured at the extremes of high and low water, and so to modify the conditions as to furnish a given amount of power at all times when required for the mills. To accomplish these desiderata I had to cause the water-wheels to rise and fall with the river, and always to retain the immersion of the floats and the maximum depth in the stream. This was done by suspending each wheel on powerful cast-iron levers, the fulcrums of which revolved round the pinion of the main shaft which worked into the segments of the water-wheel. Nothing could answer better than this arrangement. The wheels were fully equal to their work. They rose and fell with the water in the river, and from that time to this they have supplied a steady, cheap, and regular power to the mills.

The completion of our business arrangements enabled Mr. Escher to devote a portion of his time to excursions; and, besides those on the lakes, we ascended the High from the head of Lake Zug, and reached the summit some hours before sunrise. At break of day we were out on the top of the mountain, which I afterwards ascertained to be about the level of the snowline, or that part where vegetation ceases. I had observed, on the ascent from the valley below, which was overspread with magnificent trees in full foliage, that these progressively gave wav to varied forms of vegetation corresponding with the altitude, until at last we entered a forest of tall pines, which in their turn diminished in size until they tapered off to the size of a walking-stick; a little further up these again gave way to the lichens and such other plants as derive a scanty subsistence at the very edge of perpetual snow. It was a sublime and magnificent sight to witness the first glance of the morning sun over the pinnacles of the mighty Alps. The immense glaciers lay encircled in the arms of these lofty mountains ; and from the silence which reigned all around they appeared to repose in the sleep of death, whilst the projecting towers of granite, like the turrets of some vast cathedral, rose high in the air.

This was a panorama of Nature's own construction, and nothing could equal the grandeur of the scene. Turning round and glancing over the immense precipice of conglomerate (or pudding-stone) which seemed to overhang the lake at a height of 4,000 feet, there was nothing to be seen but a sea of clouds, like flakes of wool, rolling to and frc. In a few minutes the w hole of this fairy scene disappeared, the mist was suddenly disperse d, and again turning round there was a scene of beauty and animation revealed beyond my powers to describe. Down at our feet lay the mirror-like Lakes of Zug and Lucerne, beyond which were seen the wide and expansive valleys dividing the Alps from the Jura, which, like an immense rampart, shuts out the tamer landscape of La belle France. The whole was a picture of surpassing beauty.

The journey to Switzerland was productive of great advantages to our little establishment, as numerous orders for water-wheels followed in succession those of Mr. Escher; and in the three succeeding years we erected several new water-wheels in the Vosges, Alsace, and other parts of France. In fact, we continued to receive orders from all parts of the Continent till the principle became generally known, and the French were able to construct the improved wheels for themselves. Irrespective of these benefits, I had formed a bond of union and friendship with Mr. Escher which from that time to the present has suffered no diminution. His eldest son, Mr. Albert Escher, having received mechanical instruction at the works in Canal Street, immediately on his return to Zurich commenced a large machine establishment, which, till the day of his death, June 1844, stood high in the estimation of the Swiss, Italian, and German public. For a considerable number of years I transacted business with Mr. Escher's new establishment in the manufacture of iron steamboats and engines, of which four still ply on the Lake of Constance, and others on the Lakes Wallenstadt, Lucerne, and Geneva.

The construction of the large water-wheels at Catrine and Deanston, and the introduction of similar structures with our new system of millwork on the Continent, gave a name and reputation to the firm of Fairbaim and Lillie, which it retained for more than a dozen years, till we separated in 1832. Up to the time when we received Mr. Buchanan's order we had conducted our business in the old building in Mather Street. The construction of such large hydraulic machines as the Catrine water-wheels, fifty feet in diameter, required more tools and space. We had, therefore, to hire a yard in order to meet the exigencies of the case, and to furnish the necessary facilities for conducting a more extended business. This business continued to increase both at home and abroad, and a few years enabled us to realise a handsome competency, and made us what we considered rich men. In 1830 our stock-book showed a balance of nearly 40,000. in our favour, and left us sufficient capital to enable us to build a foundry, and increase our works in other departments to the extent of giving employment to upwards of 300 hands.

In 1830 Mr. Fairbairn formally enrolled himself among his professional brethren by joining the Institution of Civil Engineers, a society then newly incorporated, but which has since taken gigantic dimensions, and has become one of the most important scientific bodies in the world.

The following is a copy of the certificate of Mr. Fairbairn's election:—

No. 231.

Admitted April 20, 1830.

Institution of Civil Engineers, Backingham Street, Adelplii.

William Fairbairn, of Manchester, now practising as a mechanical engineer, being desirous of admission into the Institution of Civil Engineers, we, the undersigned, from our personal knowledge, propose and recommend him as a proper person to become a member thereof.

Witness our hands, this 30th day of March, 1830.

J. Walker.
Robert Stevenson.
John Farey.

The Council of the Institution of Civil Engineers, meeting on the 30th day of March, 1830, present the above-mentioned candidate to be balloted for as a corresponding member.

Signed,

Thomas Telford, Chairman.


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