The Life of Sir William
Fairbairn, Bart Edited and Completed by William
It was not without some hesitation
that I undertook, at the request of the family of the late Sir
William Fairbairn, a task which, under ordinary circumstances, would
have been better performed by a more practised writer. It was,
however, considered that, from the peculiar nature of his
occupations and pursuits, justice could hardly be done to his
biography, except by some one familiar with the technical and
scientific subjects it must so Largely treat of; and it was on this
ground alone that I felt justified in accepting the proposal.
The autobiography which forms the
earlier part of the history bears on its first page the following
This memoir was written at the request
of some highly respected friends, who were desirous that I should
leave on record the events of what they were pleased to call an
eventful and useful life. To this I consented, on condition that it
should not be published till after my death; and then only in case
my executors and friends should think it would he for the. benefit
of those who have to encounter similar difficulties in life.
As most of the account of ray early life
was written from memory during a voyage, the narrative will require
careful revision and condensation, including such omissions as in
the judgment of my friends may be deemed necessary.
March 17, 18-51.
My work in regard to this has been
simply to carry out the revision directed by the author.
For the remainder of the biography,
which records the important labours of the last thirty or forty
years of his life, my data have been derived from his published
works and memoirs ;— from an immense mass of his correspondence and
papers put into my hands—from information furnished to me by
relatives and friends;—and from facts within my own knowledge. I
take this opportunity of expressing my thanks to all those who have
so kindly given me their aid.
I have thought it would add to the
interest of the work to give a notice, more complete than had
hitherto appeared, of the profession to which Sir William
Fairbairn belonged;—one which, although so recent in its origin, has
acquired in the present day a magnitude and importance most
In regard to the general selection of
the matter that appears in the following pages, I have been guided
by the judgment and wishes of the family; for the literary and
technical treatment I alone am responsible.
Athenaeum Club, London:
Chapter I - On the Profession of
Interest attaching to the Profession of Engineering—Origin of the
Term. Engineer—Examples of its early Use—Ancient Engineering Works
—Persons by whom they were constructed—The Architect—The Ancient
Priests' Title 'Pontifex'—Works in the Middle Ages— Bridges; the 'Freres
Pontiers'—Hydraulic Works in the North of Italy—Appreciation of
Science—Belidor—Want of Men to execute such Works—Rise of a new
Class of Practitioners called Civil Engineers—Engineering in
England—Early Works—The New River —British Bridges—Inigo Jones,
Labelye, Edwards—True Rise of English Engineering with Brindley and
Smeaton — First Use in England of the present Name of the Profession
— Smeaton's Successors: Watt, Milne, Rennie, Telford — The Modern
Era of Railways—Definition of the Profession of Engineering, and the
Occupations comprised therein — Importance of the Profession as
estimated by the Magnitude and Value of the Works executed.
Chapter II - Mechanical
Mechanical Engineering a Branch of Civil Engineering, and not
distinct from it—Early History of Practical Mechanics—Archimedes—
Hero—Vitruvius—Works on Mechanics—Mechanical Engineering in
England—Peter Morice's Water Machinery—Millwrights—Brindley— Smeaton—The
Iron Manufacture — Works in Sussex—Dud Dudley; Darby, and Colebrook
Dale—The Iron Bridge over the Severn—Puddling—Cort's
Improvements—Welsh Iron Works— Scotch Iron Works—The Carron Company—Smeaton—Watt
and the Steam Engine—Connection with Roebuck and Boulton—Soho Works
— The Rotating Engine — Albion Mills — Rennie — Great Stimulus to
Manufacturing Progress—Later Improvements in the Manufacture of
Iron—The Hot Blast—Cleveland and Lancashire
Iron Districts—Statistics—Improvements in Workshop Processes, Tools,
and Appliances — Early Difficulties, and how they were surmounted —
Founding, Forging, Riveting, Shaping — Turning, and Improvement in
Lathes — Maudsley — Boring; Wilkinson — Planing; Clement—Shaping and
Slotting Machines—Screwing and Screw Threads—Whitworth's
Improvements—Development of Au-' tomatic Tools largely due to
Strikes among Workmen—Decay of the Millwright Class—Large Structures
in Iron—Iron Bridges, Cast and Wrought—Iron Ships—Iron Armour Plates
and Forts—Heavy Guns—Fairbairn as a Mechanical Engineer.
Chapter III - From Birth to the
end of Residence at Kelso
Age, to 14. 1789-1803.
Date and Place of Birth—Pedigree—Father and Mother—First
Schooling—Athletic Exercises—Family Circumstances—Connection with
Sir Walter Scott and his Family—Character and Ability of William's
Mother—Spinning Competitions—Farm at Moy—Difficult and trying
Journey to the Highlands—Ingenious Method of clearing the Land—Farm
Improvements—Effect of Residence at Moy —Early Indications of Taste
for Mechanical Pursuits—Relinquishment of the Conduct of the Farm—Mullochy
School; its Discipline—Further Education with his Uncle at
Galashiels—The Psalms of David—Return to Kelso—Employment on an
Engineering Work—Serious Accident.
Chapter IV - First Employment and
AGE 14-21. 1803-1810.
Appointment of Andrew at Percy Main Colliery, Northumberland—
William joins him—Prosperity among the Pitman and Sailors; its
Consequences — Boxing Matches; William's First Victory — Bound
Apprentice to a Millwright—Endeavours to improve his Mind—Programme
of Study—First Love Attachment; Its influence on his Literary
Abilities—Frederick and Felicia—Mathematics, History and
Poetry—Mechanical Pursuits—Design for a Clock-Orrery; its
Failure—Music and Musical Instruments— The Story of a
Fiddle—Home-Brewed Music—Takes charge of the Steam-Engine and Pumps
of the Colliery—Severe and trying Nature of the Duties—Subscription
to the Keg; its Consequences —Completion of his Term of
Chapter V - Removal to London -
AGE 21-24. 1810-1813.
Search for Employment—Work at Newcastle—David Hogg—The future Mrs.
Fairbairn — Discussion Society — The Theatre—The Poet of Plessy—Castles
in the Air—Embarks for London—Perils of the Voyage—Arrival in the
Thames—The Captain's Walk on Shore—Midnight Murders—Difficulties —
Application to Mr. Rennie—The Millwrights' Society—Cold and
Hunger—New Use of a Bedstead—Refusal of Permission to work with Mr.
Rennie— Walk to Hertford—Discouragement—Sunshine—Chestnut
Windmill—Supper—Return to London—Trades' Unions—The Independent
Society—Employment and Residence in London—Mr. Hall.
Chapter VI - Further Employment -
Marriage and Settlement in Manchester
Age 24-28. 1813-1817.
Studies in Agriculture—Steam Ploughing—The Society of Arts and the
Board of Agriculture—Sausage-Making Machine—Visit to
Bath—Reminiscences of the Novelists—Bristol—South Wales— '
Dublin—Breakfast with Duke Humphrey—Festivities in the Phoenix
Park—Employment with Mr. Robinson—Nail-Making Machinery—Passage to
Liverpool—First Arrival at Manchester—Employment with Mr. Parkinson
— Attack of Scarlet Fever — Mr. Iloutson — His Brother, the African
Traveller — Belzoni — Prospects for the Future—Saving Money—The
Fiddle again— Habits of the Lancashire Operatives—Marriage in 1816—
Domestic Arrangements—Mrs. Fairbairn's Illness—Accident by Fire— The
New Blackfriars Bridge at Manchester—Mr. Hewes—Resolution to start
Business on his own Account ... 95
Chapter VII - Commencement of
Business in Manchester - Successful Establishment of Manufacturing
Age 28-34. 1817-1823.
Determination to set up for himself in Business—First Order
undertaken-—Partnership with Lillie—Patent Claim—Difficulties and
Discouragements—Small Orders—The Irishman as a Motive Power —Mr.
Murray—Order to rearrange his Mill Machinery—The Poverty of the
Land—Nature of the Alterations—Defects observed and Improvements
introduced—Their Importance and Success—Repairs on Sundays
abolished—New Mill for M'Connel and Kennedy—Reminiscences of
Murdoch, of Soho—Rising Fame, of the new Firm of Fairbaim and
Lillie—Increase of the Manufacturing Establishment—Constant
Chapter VIII - Water-Wheels at
Catrine Bank - Connection with Escher - Journey to the Continent and
Age 34-41. 1824-1830.
Order from Mr. Buchanan, of Catrine Bank, for New Waterwheels— Mr.
Fairbaim visits the Site—Nature of the old Machinery—Improvements
proposed—Completion and Success of the New Wheels —Character of Mr.
Buchanan—Application from Mr. Escher, of Zurich—Adventures of a
Cotton Mill during the War—Lavater— Effect of the Peace in
stimulating Industry on the Continent— Account of Mr. Fairbairn's
Journey—Posting through France-Lille—Paris—The Old Parts of the
Town—M. Fourneyron and his Turbine—Stay at Zurich—The Mills and the
Alterations to them —Pleasure Excursions—The
Right—Sunrise—Increasing Success in the Business—Mr. Fairbaim joins
the Institution of Civil Engineers.
Chapter IX - Steam Locomotion on
Canals - Iron Boats - Voyage of The 'Lord Douglas' - Troubles in
Business - Dissolution of Partnership
Age 41-43. 1830-1832.
Experiments on the Ardrossan Canal—Mr. Fairbairn's Trials on the
Forth and Clyde Navigation—Results-—Competition of Railways with
Canals—Fears of the Proprietors—Endeavours to introduce quick
Passenger Boats—Commission to Mr. Fairbaim to build a new Iron
Vessel, to be propelled by Steam-Power—Publication of the
Experiments—Mr. Fairbairn's first Literary Essay—Contents of the
Book—Dr. Henry's Opinion on the Style—The 'Lord Dundas—Description—First
Trial on the River IrweU—Mr. Fairbairn's Anxiety—Results of the
Trial—Mr. George Rennie—Other Trials—Departure of the 'Lord Dundas'
for the Isle of Man— Deviation from the proper Course—Errors of the
Compass—Mr, Fairbairn follows—His Search for the Boat—Correction of
the Compass—Arrival in the Clyde—Further Trials—Final Result— Letter
to the Baron Dupin—Influence of this Event on Mr. Fairbairn's
Career—New Speculation in the Egerton Dye-Works—
Failure—Misunderstandings between Mr. Fairbaim and Mr. Lillie
—Resulting Dissolution of Partnership.
Chapter X - Iron Ship-Building -
River Bann - Experiments on Iron - The Riveting Machine
Age 43-50. 1832-1839.
Iron Ship-Building—The e Manchester' Canal Steamer—Other Iron
Vessels—Establishment of a Ship-Building Yard at Millwall—
Competition—Difficulties and Anxiety—Perseverance and Energy
—Evening Meetings for Discussion—Proposed Establishment of ' The
Workshop' Periodical—Hodgkinson—Woodcraft—Nasmyth —Literary and
Scientific Ambition—Soham Mere Drainage-Report on the River Bann—Mr.
John Frederick Bateman—Recommendations adopted—Construction of
Reservoirs—River Don— Experiments and Investigation on hot and cold
Blast Cast-iron in conjunction with Mr. Eaton Hodgkinson, for the
British Association—Paper for the Manchester Literary and
Philosophical Society—The Riveting Machine—Mr. Robert Smith—Patent
Chapter XI - Journey to
Constantinople and work for the Turkish Government
Age 50-54. 1839-1843.
Commission sent by the Sultan to England—Their Report—Application to
Mr. Fairbaim—He visits Constantinople—Death of the Sultan—Ohanes
Dadian—Exploration of the Country—Animated Boulder Stones—Survey of
the Government Manufacturing Works —Their Imperfections—Astrological
Considerations about casting a Gun—The Seraskier's Dinner
Party—English Railways—Trades in the open Air—Mr. Fairbairn's
Attempt to imitate the Turkish Workmen, and ignominious
Failure—Large Orders—Second Mission to England—Investigation
regarding Iron Ores—Paper for the Institution of Civil
Engineers—Telford Medal—Account of a large Woollen
Factory—Complimentary Letter, and Decoration from the Sultan.
Chapter XII - Miscellaneous
Age 51-60. 1840-1849.
Conclusion of the Autobiography—Data for subsequent
Chapters-Professional Matters—Haarlem Lake—The Manchester Geological
Society—Further Experiments on Oast-Iron—Letters from a Fellow-Labourer—Accidents
in Factories—Patent for Improvements in joining Metal Plates—The
Smoke Nuisance—The use of Iron for large Buildings—Fires in
Liverpool—Fire-Proof Constructions—Fall of a Mill at Oldham—Bridge
at Basle—Iron Structure Commission of 1847—Mr. Fairbairn's
Evidence—Water-Wheels with ventilated Buckets—Personal
Matters—Pupils—Dr. Birkbeek—Miss Fairbairn's Marriage—Death of Mr.
Fairbairn's Father—Haydon, the Artist—Proposed Wrestling Match with
Chapter XIII - The Conway and
Britannia Tabular Bridges
Mr. Fairbairn's Book on the Subject—Origin and early History— The
Chester and Holyhead Railway—Mr. Stephenson's original Idea — Mr.
Fairbaim consulted by him — Doubt as to the best form of Tube,
cylindrical, elliptical, or rectangular—Nature of the
Strains—Weakness of the upper Part—Mr. Eaton Hodgkinson—Corrugated
Top—Reports to the Directors—Proposed use of Suspension Chains—Mr.
Fairbairn's Confidence—The large Model—Drawings for the
Bridges—Definition of Mr, Fairbairn's Position—Resolutions of the
Directors—Commencement of the Construction of the Conway
Bridge—Contracts for Ironwork— Erection and
fixing—Completion—Retirement of Mr. Fairbaim —Publication of the
Book—Assistance of Eminent Men—Patent for Tubular Bridges—Extensive
Manufacture of them.
Chapter XIV - Bridge over the
Rhine at Cologne
Application to Mr. Fairbaim—Proposed Chain Bridge—The Chevalier
Bunsen—Mr. Fairbaim visits Berlin—Reception by the Baron Yon
Humboldt—Presentation to the King—Correspondence with Humboldt and
Bunsen—Mr. Fairbairn's Impressions of the Berlin Journey—Visit of
Commissioners to England—Letter to Mrs. Edgeworth—Invitation by the
Prussian Authorities for competitive Designs on the Chain
Principle—This Principle abandoned —Second Mission to
England—Complete Design sent in by Mr. Fairbaim—Adoption of the
general Principle—Rejection of the Tubular Form of Girder and
Preference for the Open Lattice-Final Correspondence.
Chapter XV - Scientific Honours
AGE 61-64. 1850-1853.
Culminating Point in Mr. Fairbairn's Life—Effect of Controversies—
The Royal Society of London—Mr. George Rennie—-Certificate-Election
as F.R.S.—The National Institute of France—Its Foundation and
Constitution—The French Academy and Johnson— Vacancy—Mr. Fairbaim
proposed aa a Candidate—Commission of the Academy of
Sciences—Correspondence with Arago, Dupin, Morin, Poncelet—Water-Wheels—Election—The
Athenaeum Club —Its Objects and Mode of Election—Rule II.—Mr.
Fairbaim elected without Ballot—Minor Honours.
Chapter XVI - Steam Boilers and
Matters connected therewith
Steam-Boilers—Mr. Fairbaim engaged largely in their Construction
—Improvement in their Design—The Two-Flued, or Lancashire
Boiler—Boiler Explosions—Their Frequency in the Manufacturing
Districts—Mr. Fairbairn's frequent Evidence at Coroners' Inquests —
Lectures at Leeds and other Towns—Paper at the British
Association—Foundation of the Association for the Prevention of
Boiler Explosions—First Ideas—First Steps for the Formation of the
Society—Fairbaim and Whitworth—Notices by the Press—Preliminary
Meetings—Formal Establishment—Mr. Fairbaim becomes President—Present
State of the Association—Theoretical Investigations undertaken by
Mr. Fairbaim—Paper to the Royal Society —The Resistance of Tubes to
Collapse—The Strength of Glass— The Properties of Steam—Letter from
Regnault—Legislative Interference in regard to Steam Boilers—Mr.
Fairbairn's Opinions thereon—Committees of the British Association
and of the House of Commons—Sir William's late Improvements in
Boilers—Communication with the Association near the Close of his
Life—Tribute by them to his Memory.
Chapter XVII - Mr Hopkins's Earth
Mr. William Hopkins of Cambridge—His Investigations in the
Application of Mechanics to Geology—Igneous Origin of the Earth—
Condition of its Crust—Internal Heat—Scientific
Discussions—Experiments wanted of a practical Nature—Application to
Mr. Fairbaim—Experiments begun in 1851 — Grant of the Royal Society
— Mr, Joule—Professor "William Thomson — Ingenious Magnetic
Indicator — Scientific Correspondence between Mr. Hopkins and Mr.
Joule—Progress of the Experiments—Liverpool Meeting of the British
Association in 1854—Mr. Hopkins's Illness and Death—Conclusions
drawn from the Experiments.
Chapter XVIII - The Manchester
Mr. Fairbairn as a Manufacturing Engineer—The Manchester Works
—Their Origin—Improvements in Driving
Machinery—Water-Wheels—Testimony to their Efficiency—Dissolution of
Partnership—New Branches of Business—Ship-building—The Manufacture
of Steam-Engines and Boilers—Locomotives—The Tank Engine—Work for
Constantinople—Entrance of Mr. Fairbairn's Son into the
Business—Liverpool Landing Stage—The Tubular Bridge
Patent—Improvements in the Steam-Engine—Caisson for Keyham Dockyard
— Express Locomotives —Tubular Cranes — Strike of the Engineering
Workmen—Letters of ' Amicus' to the 4 Times '—Lord Shaftesbury—The
Small Arms Factory at Enfield—Saltaire Woollen Factory—Great
Prosperity of the Manchester Business—Retirement of Mr. Fairbaim—Flour-Mill
and Bakery for the Crimean War—Rebuilding of Viaducts on the
Manchester and Sheffield Railway—Limited Liability Company—Winding
Chapter XIX - The Millwall
Contrast with the Manchester Business—Early History of Iron
Ship-building—The 'Aaron Manby' and Sir Charles Napier— Mr.
Fairbairn's early Experiments—Choice of a Locality for the
Ship-building Manufacture — Millwall—Outlay — Management —
Orders—Work for the Admiralty, the East India Company, and the
Mercantile Marine—Royal Pleasure
Yachts—Patents—Difficulties—Competition—Want of Experience—Unfavourable
Reports as to Mr. Fairbairn's Credit—Depression and
Anxiety—Resolution to get rid of the Works — Their Sale — Mr.
Fairbairn's Sons —Large amount of Loss by these Works.
Chapter XX - Iron Armour
Age 73-79. 1861-1867.
Application of Iron to Defensive Purposes—Change in the Construction
of the Navy—Iron Ships—Refusal of the Admiralty to adopt the new
Material — Ignorance and Prejudice in regard to it— Rifled Guns and
Shell—Casing of Timber Ships with Iron—The Emperor of the French—The
Russian War—1 La Gloire —The ' Warrior' — Iron Armour — Plan of
first doing a Thing and then enquiring how it should he done —
Appointment of the Iron Committee — Their Labours — Evidence —
Experiments — Nature of the Material—Mode of Manufacture—Hammering
and Rolling—Form and Material of the Shot—Law of Resistance of
Plates—Mode of applying the Armour to the Vessels—Wood Backing—Minor
Particulars—Experimental Targets—Mr. Fairbairn's Contributions to
the Committee—The Gibraltar Shield.
Chapter XXI - Miscellaneous
Age 61-80. 1850-1869.
Visit to Northern Europe—Interview with the Emperor of Russia— Medal
from the King of Sweden — Inventors, Letter from Mr. Cobden —
Exhibition of 1851 — British Association at Hull — Cooling Air in
Hot Climates — The Institution of Mechanical Engineers—Business in
France—Mr. Babbage—French Exhibition of 1855—Backwardness of English
Design—Lord Ashburton—The Legion of Honour—James Watt—Henry Cort—Manchester
Art Treasures Exhibition—Journey to Italy—Atlantic Cable—Manchester
Literary and Philosophical Society—Gold Medal from the Royal
Society—President of the British Association at Manchester in
1861—Offer of Knighthood—Richard Roberts—Honorary Degrees—British
Association at Cambridge—International Exhibition of 1862—Baronetcy.
Chapter XXII - Literary Work
Mr. Fairbairn a voluminous Writer—Tubular Girder Bridges—Paper for
the Royal Society—Effect of repeated Meltings on
Cast-iron—Application of Iron to Building Purposes—Article 'Iron' in
the 'Encyclopaedia Britannica'—'Useful Information for Engineers'—
Self-Acting Brakes—The Strength of Iron Ships—Second Series of
'Useful Information'—Effect of vibratory Action on Girders— Mills
and Mill work—Iron Ship-Building—Third Series of 'Useful
Information'—Contribution to Baines's 'Lancashire and Cheshire' —On
the Durability of Iron Ships—Mr. Fairbaim as a Lecturer— His Last
Address—Mr. W. 0. Unwin.
Chapter XXIII - Illness and Death
The Fairbairns a long-lived Family—William's robust Constitution
—First serious Illness—Reaches his Seventy-eighth Year—Loss of his
Eldest Son—Letters from Sir David Brewster and Dr.
Robinson—Complaints—Obliged to give up Romping and other juvenile
Propensities—Owens College—Bronchial Attack—Visits to Brighton and
to Holland Park—Marriage of his Grand-daughter—1 Give her a Round
'•—Visits to Mr. Bateman—Last Days at Moor Park— Death—Bishop
Sumner—Funeral—Obituary Notices—Memorial by the City of Manchester.
Chapter XXIV - Personal Details -
Illustrations of Character
The Golden Wedding Day—Sons and Daughters—The present Baronet—The
Royal Family, the Prince Consort and the Prince of Wales—Offers of
Rank—House at the Polygon, Society there— Mr. Fairbairn's
Character—Business Integrity—Domestic Letters —New Stock and
Barrel—Two Moons—Opinions on worthless Schemes—Religious Feelings,
Cross Street Chapel, the Rev. W. Gaakell, Rival Hymn-Books—Peculiar
Notions of Religious Toleration—Novel Reading—Correspondence with
Mrs. Gaskell—Professional and Scientific Character—Personal and
Private Traits— Indefatigable Activity—Regular and punctual
Habits—Liberality —Popularity—'There's Fairbairn!'—Fondness for
Appendix - List of Sir William
Fairbairn's Published Works and Papers.
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