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The Life of Sir William Fairbairn, Bart
Chapter XV - Scientific Honours

The publication of Mr. Fairbairn's work on the great bridges formed a culminating point in his life; and the controversies which took place on the subject, although they caused him much annoyance at the time, were not without advantage to him, inasmuch as they brought his name more prominently before the world, and called more general attention, not only to the part he had taken in the works in question, but to his distinguished position generally as a mechanical engineer.

The appreciation of his merits was manifested immediately by some honours being paid him of very high character.

The first of these was his admission into the Royal Society of London. This society elects fifteen members every year, who are selected carefully by the council, out of a large number of candidates, on account of eminent scientific merit; and consequently the fellowship of the society is a high distinction.

The proposal appears to have originated with the late Mr. George Rennie, who, writing to Mr. Fairbairn on December 4, 1819, said:—

Few men would have a better chance, as your name and reputation are too well known to the world at large to permit of any doubt of your success. I will desire the assistant secretary to send you a printed form to be filled up, and to be sent round to your friends for signature, in which I will assist, although I am precluded from signing it myself.

The form, or certificate, as it is called, was ultimately filled up as follows:—1

William Fairbairn, Engineer, Manchester, author of numerous papers which have been from time to time published in the Transactions of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, in the Memoirs of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester, and the Transactions of Institution of Civil Engineers. These papers embrace an enquiry into the comparative strength of hot and cold blast iron, an extended investigation of the strength and other properties of all the irons of Great Britain, and of the Samakoff Turkish iron; an Essay on the Combustion of Fuel, on the most Economical Method of Raising Water from Mines, &c. The author also of a work descriptive of the Conway and Britannia Tubular Bridges, and containing also an experimental research to determine the law which governs the strengths, &c., of Wrought-Iron Tubular Bridges and Girders;—being desirous of admission into the Royal Society of London, we, the undersigned, propose and recommend him as deserving that honour, and as likely to become a useful and valuable member.—Dated this 31st day of January, 1850.

It was signed by the following names, among which many will be recognised as of great scientific eminence :—

Henry Holland, Henry Moseley, John Rennie, J. Walker, W. Cubitt, Joshua Field, James Booth, F. Beaufort, W. C. Mylne, G. R. Porter, Robert Willis, John Barrow, Charles Babbage, Andrew Ure, William Brockedon.

The council included Mr. Fairbairn's name in the selected list of candidates; and he was elected into the Society, June 6, 1850.

Within a year after Mr. Fairbairn's election into the Royal Society another honour was paid him, which was still more distinguished, on account of the very few of his countrymen on whom it has been bestowed—that of admission into the National Institute of France. As the nature and constitution of this body are not generally known in this country, a few explanatory words may be in place here.

The Institute of France was founded by the Republic on the 5 Fructidor (August 22), 1795, its declared object being :—

I. A perfectionner les sciences et les arts par des recherclies non interrompues, par la publication des decouvertes, par la correspondance avec les societes savantes et etrangeires. 2°. A suivre, conformeraent aux lois et arretes du Directoire executiffl les travaux scientifiques et litteraires qui auront pour objot l'utilite generale et la gloire de la Republique.

It was confirmed by Bonaparte some years later; and again by Louis XVIII. in 1816, and by Louis Philippe in 1832.

The body termed 'l'lnstitut de France' comprises five 'Academies,' the constitution of which is as follows :—


This consists of forty members chosen from the most eminent literary and public men of the kingdom.


This consists of men eminent in antiquarian and polite literature, and the members are :—

Academiciens libres
Assocites etrangers
Correspondants, French
Correspondants, Foreigners

3. L'Academte des Sciences.

This is divided into eleven sections, and the numbers of members of different grades are :—


Geometry 6
Mechanics 6
Astronomy 6
Geography and Navigation 3
General Physics 6
Chemistry 6
Mineralogy 6
Botany 6
Rural Economy 6
Anatomy and Zoology 6
Medicine and Surgery 6

Acadrmirien Libres 10
Associates Strangers 8


Geometry 6
Mechanics 6
Astronomy 16
Geography and Navigation 8
General Physics 9
Chemistry 9
Mineralogy 8
Botany 10
Rural Economy 10
Anatomy and Zoology 10
Medicine and Surgery 8

When a vacancy occur by the death of any academician, a list of at least three names is drawn up and presented to the Institute by the Academy in which the vacancy arises, and the choice between them is made by the general body. The corresponding members in each Academy are elected by that Academy, on the presentation of a list by the section in which the vacancy occurs.

In the middle of the year 1851, a. vacancy occurred among the corresponding members of the Mechanical Section of the Academy of Sciences by the death of Sir Mark Isambard Brunel. Mr. Fairbairn had previously made the acquaintance of some influential members of the Institute, among whom were Generals Foncelet and Morin, Baron Dupin, and M. Arago; and on the encouragement of these and other friends, he decided to offer himself as a candidate. He went to Paris in September, and shortly afterwards sent over full particulars of his claims, accompanied with the following letter to General Poncelet:—

Manchester: October 1, 1851.

Dear General Poncelet,—The interest you have taken in wishing me to become a candidate for admission as a corresponding member of the Institute of France, induces me to lay before you a brief statement of facts in connection with my past and present history. I would not have ventured to aspire to the dignity but for the encouragement I received from yourself and M. Arago; nor is it my intention even now to present myself before the members of the Academy unless well supported by friends who may consider me worthy of such a distinction. I have no doubt there will be found many claimants of higher standing and much greater learning than myself, entitled to such an honour, but I should deem myself ungrateful, after the encouragement I have received, if I did not lay before the Academy a list of my qualifications, with copies of such as I have in my possession, which I now forward for acceptance by that distinguished body.

I have further drawn up for your guidance a short account of my early history, and a brief statement of my endeavours to be useful in my professional capacity, and the advancement of practical science. Iu these attempts I have laboured under an imperfect education, and many other disadvantages, which nothing but an indomitable perseverance could overcome. IIow far I have been successful I must leave my works to determine; and all I have now to offer is (in case of my election) the same determined spirit to be useful to the Institute of France, as I humbly trust I have been to the Institutions I have been connected with in this country.

Yours faithfully and obliged,

Wm. Fairbairn.

The Academy named a commission of three members to investigate Mr. Fairbairn's claims; and, the result of this being satisfactory, an official letter was addressed to him as follows:—

Paris, le 13 Novembre, 1851.

Mon cher Monsieur,—II y a eu ce moment une vacance de Membre Correspondant de la Section de Mecanique a l'Academie des Sciences a Paris.

Les giands et beaux travaux que vous avez diriges et executes vous mettent au nombre des personnes sur lesquelles doit se porter la pensee de l'lnstitut. Je vous prie done de me faire savoir si votre intention est de vous porter comme c.mdidat en titre de Membre Correspondant de l'Academie des Sciences (Section de Mecanique), et dans le cas de l'afErmativa, de m'euvoyer Be note des principaux travaux sur lesquels s'appme-rait votre candidature.

Recevez, Monsieur, l'expression de la haute consideration de votre devoifl serviteur, I'Jk Colonel d'Artillerie, Membre de l'lnstitut, AdminH trateur du Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers,

A. Mown.

Monsieur Wm. faAKBAiKN.

This letter was answered in due course, but the stirring political events of the end of the year so interrupted the even course of routine business that nothing was done towards the elections for some months. Many vacancies had occurred, and the French members had to be elected before the claims of the Corresponding members could be entertained. Mr. Fairbairn, however, continued to receive strong expressions of support, from his distinguished friends, as is shown in the following interesting letter from one of the greatest mechanics of the age :—

Paris, la 4 Fevrier. 1852.

Mon cher et tr&s estime Collegue,—Mon long silence n'aurait aucune excuse legitime, sans les evenements politiques qui sont venus nous surprendre. D'tme autre part, lors de vos premieres communications et de l'envoi de vos nombreux titres aux suffrages de l'lnstitut, la plupart de mes eollegues de la section de mecanique etaient absente de Paris, et il afaliu attendre leur retour pour les mettre au courant de notre projet d'election, sans trop en brusquer le denouement et leur faire penser que notre parti etait pris et arrete a l'avance. Aujourd'hui, malgre les evenements, les choses sont beaucoup plus avancees, et j'ai tout bien de croire que votre nom sera porte en tete de la liste des candidates de la section de mecanique.

A l'egard de vos titres et des divers travaux de votre labo-rieuse earri£re, ils seront, vous ponvez en etre sur, apprecies a leur juste valeur. Pour moi, je les trouve, en tous point?, dignes des suffrages de l'Academie des Sciences, soit au point de vue pratiepie, soit a celui de l'invention et des recherches experi-mentales entreprises en vue d'eclairer la science de construction. Vos immenses travaux comme ingenieur et constructeur, votre ingenieuse machine a river, et la maniere dont vous avez su, l'un des premiers, assouplir la tole et en propager l'emploi dans l'industrie manufacturiere, et les grandes constructions nautiques, sont dignes de la plus haute estime. Knfin je suis tout a fait de l'avis du I)r. Ure quant aux eloges qu'il donne a votre systeme d'etablissement des arbres de commande dans les filatures, &c.

Votre bel ouvrage sur les ponts tubulaires ne laisse rien a desirer a cet egard [vos droits comme inventeur et perfection-neurj; j'en 'lirai ant,ant de votre machine a. river, et de vos constructions de roues hjdrauliques, ou chacun appreciera les belles dispositions adoptees; neanmoins pour les hommes tels que moi alles pen au courant du progrtte que les constructions de ce genre ont reyu en Angleterre, il serait utile de connaitre la tili£re historique des idees. Au Bujet de vos grandes et belles roues a augets courbes ventiles a systeme de suspension, je trouve des renseignements precieux dans le memoire que M. Ferey a bien voulu me remettre de votre pait, et dont je vous adresse mes bien sincfoes remerciments. Vos syst£mes de construction sont sans contredit superieurs a ceux qui avaient, j usque-la, ete employes, et je les crois tres propres a rendre les services auxquels il sont destines ; cependant je ne pense que l'evacua-tion de l'air en dehors les augets soit le seul obstacle oppose a Pintroduction de l'eau dans les augets, et que par consequent le moyen de ventilation si simple que vous employez soit le dernier mot de la question. D'apres des etudes tres anciennes que j'ai faites de cette question, le rapport des vitesses de la roue et de la veine d'eau, les angles des augets et de cette veine avec la circonference exterieure de la roue doivent exercer aussi une tres grande influence, et c'est dans cette vue que j'ai imagine des dispositions nouvelles, pour les roues en dessus et de cote, qui different beaucoup de tout ce que 1'on avait imagine jusqu'a present, outre que j'ai eu aussi en vue une acceleration de vitesse.

(xisiifutAL Poncelet.

11. Poncelet added a lucid description of his improvements in water wheels, illustrating it with sketches. These improvements have now long been known, and have become highly appreciated among engineers, for their elegant scientific merit and their practical utility; but the description is too technical for insertion here.

A little later, another great mechanic wrote :—

Paris, le H Mar», 18o2.

Mon cher Fairbairn,—J'ai tarde bien longtemps a vous ecrire au snjet de 1'affaire qui vous inteiesse ici, parce que je voulais pouvoir vous en donner quelques nouvelles certaines. Apre8 des pourparlers assez longs, et difficiles, nous sommes parvenus, JIM. Dupin, Poncelet et moi, a faire decider par la section de mecanique que vous seriez presente pour etre nomme membre correspondant de l'lnstitut avec MM. Babbage, Hodgkinson et Willis; mais que la section declarerait que dans l'etat actuel des besoins de la science elle demande que vous soyez choisi. M. Dupin se charge de faire le rapport.

Votre bien affectionne,

M. Moris.

The final proceedings are detailed iu the following letters, which are given verbatim, as they were written in English by the great man whose signature they bear.

Paris, May 1852.

Dear Sir,—Monday last I had the honour and pleasure to read my report, in the name of Mechanics' Section of the Institute of France, to propose the candidates for the place of correspondent, vacant by the death of Sir M. I. Brunei.

I have been happy enough to obtain that your name should be the first of all candidates.

I can say you that I have been quite enthusiastic with the study of your numerous and so meritorious works and inventions; the picture of them did strike the whole Academy with admiration.

I hope next week to be able to write again to you a letter announcing your election as our worthy Correspondent, and nobody will be more happy for that result than I shall be.

I am, Sir, Your most devoted servant,

Baron Chaples Dipln.

Paris, May 11, 1852.

Dear Sir,—I rejoice very much in giving .to you notice that you have been elected to-day Correspondant of the National Institute of France, and your majority has been enormous, thirty-seven against four.

I am, dear sir, Your most devoted colleague and friend,

Barox Charles Ditiv

The official announcement of the election was as follows;—

Institut de France. Acaldie des Sciences, Paris, le 11 Mai, 1852.

Le Secretaire perpetuel de l'Academie pour les Sciences Mathematiques.

Monsieur,—J'ai l'hunneur de vous adresser 1'extrait ci-joiut du Proems-verbal de la seance du Mardi 11 Mai, dans laquelle l'Academie vient de vous nommer l'un de ses Correspondants pour la Section de Mecanique, en remplacement de feu Mr. Brunei.

En vous offrant ce titre comme un temoignage de son estime, l'Academie vous invite, Monsieur, a lui faire part du fruit de vos recherches dans les sciences dont elle s'occupe.

Veuillez, Monsieur, agreer 1'assuraHce de ma consideration la plus distinguee.

F. Arago.


L'Academie procede par la voie du scrutin a l'election d'un Correspondant, appele a remplir la place devenue vacante par suite du deces de Mr. Brunei.

Le resultat du scrutin donne la majorite absolue des suffrages a Mr. Fairbairn a Manchester.

En consequence M. le President le proclame elu correspondant.'

Pour extrait conforme,

F. Aback).

It may be interesting to add a list of the Englishmen who were members of the Institute about the time of Mr. Fairbairn's election :—

Academic des Inscriptions. Horace Hayman Wilson, Oxford, Assoeit Stranger. William Martin Leake, Loudon, Correspondant. Thos. Gaisford, Oxford.

Thos. Wright, London, „

II. Hawlinson, Bagdad, B. H. Hodgson, Bengal

Academic des Sciences. Robert Brown. A»sociates Stranger. Capt. Scoresby, Correspondant. Michael Faraday, Admiral Beaufort.

In 1853 came a third distinction, one highly appreciated by those who know its nature, namely, his election without ballot, into the Athemeum Club.

This institution was founded in 1824, with an object-independent of all political or party views, namely, 4 for the association of individuals known for their scientific or literary attainments, artists of eminence in any class of the fine arts, and noblemen and gentlemen distinguished as liberal patrons of science, literature, or the arts. The number of members is 1,200; and although admission into the club has not been exclusively confined to persons who come within the avowed classification, it is understood that the club Is distinguished from all others by the predominance of members of scientific, literary; and artistic pursuits and tastes.

The ordinary mode of admission into the club is by the usual process of a ballot among the members generally; and so great is the demand for admission that there are at present above 1,500 candidates on the books waiting their turn for election, and a name has to stand about fifteen years on the list before it is called on.

The club has, however, a feature peculiar to itself, namely, the existence of a rule which requires the managing committee to keep up its special character by introducing into it, without being subject to the general ballot, nine members annually, chosen for their eminence in the objects for which the institution was founded. The following is the rule in question :—

It being essential to the maintenance of the Athenaeum, in conformity with the principles upon which it was originally founded, that the annual introduction of a certain number of persons of distinguished eminence in science, literature, or the arts, or for public services, should be secured, a limited number of persons of such qualifications shall be elected by the committee. The number so elected shall not exceed nine in each year. The elections shall take place during the months of January, February, March, and April. The committee shall be specially summoned for the purpose, at least one week before the intended election ; no election shall take place unless nine at least of the committee be actually present, and the whole of those present be unanimous in their election. Not more than one-third of the total number of persons to be thus admitted within the year shall be elected at any one meeting.

The club intrust this privilege to the committee, in the entire confidence that they will only elect persons who shall have attained to distinguished eminence in science^ literature, or the arts, or for public services. The names of members so elected are to be immediately hung up in the public rooms.

In December, 1852, Mr. Fairbairn's name was entered in the candidates' book, being proposed by Mr. George Rennie, and seconded by Sir Roderick Murchison. On February 1, 1853, he was elected by the committee under the rule above cited. Among those similarly introduced in the same year were Thomas Carlyle, Baron Marochetti, and Sir Francis Grant, now P.R.A.

The following honours were paid him at subsequent periods of his life, on account of his scientific merits.

In November, 1855, he was elected member of the Academie Nationale Agricoli, Manufacturiere et Ootn-merciale, Paris;—

In December, 1856, a Corresponding Associate of the Royal Academy of Sciences, Turin ;—

In November, I860, an Honorary Member of the Prussian 'Verein fur Beforderung des Gewerbfleisses,' Berlin ;—

1st July, 1861, an Honorary Member of the Royal United Service Institution, London;—

In November, 1861, a Corresponding Member of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Liverpool;—

In the same month, an Honorary Associate of the Institution of Naval Architects, London ;—

In February, 1862, an Honorary Member of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society ;—

In June, 1862, an Honorary Associate of the Society of Arts, Geneva;—and

In October, 1867, an Honorary Member of the Society of Engineers, London.

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