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Alan Brebner (1826-1890)
ALAN BREBNER, son of Alexander Brebner, builder, was born at Edinburgh, in August, 1826. He was educated at the High School of Edinburgh, and before beginning his studies as a civil engineer, served a regular apprenticeship as a mason, thereby gaining a knowledge of building construction, which served him in good stead in his professional life.
He became a pupil of D. and T. Stevenson, civil engineers, Edinburgh, and with only a short absence between 1848 and 1850, when he acted as resident engineer in carrying through a portion of the railway works between Thornton and Dunfermline, he was identified with the firm, first as resident engineer in the erection of harbour, lighthouse, and other works; then as assistant, and latterly until his death, as a member of the firm.
He acted as resident engineer in the erection of the temporary lighthouses at Whalsay, and at North Unst in 1854, the latter being a difficult and arduous work. After this he was occupied with the works of the firm, namely, the design and execution of river improvements, harbours, docks, lighthouses, and other engineering works.
Mr. Brebner devoted special attention to lighthouse construction and optics, and devised several new arrangements of dioptric apparatus, and when making calculations in connection with them, invented a 'refraction protractor,' by means of which prisms for lighthouses can be laid down in about half the time formerly required to protract them.
During Mr. Brebner’s connection with the firm, schemes for lighting the whole of the coasts of Japan and New Zealand were matured, and are now being carried out. Mr. Brebner, who, at that time was Messrs. Stevenson’s principal assistant, took a special charge in connection with the erection of the Rock Towers at the Chickens and Dhu Heartach - works of no ordinary difficulty.
Mr. Brebner took a lively interest in the experiments which led to the use of paraffin as an illuminant in lighthouses, which has so largely decreased the cost of maintenance, and increased the intensity of the lights, rendering it possible to employ burners of larger diameter and greater initial power.
In engineering matters, Mr. Brebner’s evidence in arbitrations or courts of law, and before Parliamentary committees, was always given after careful study and conscientious preparation, and he spared no pains to get at facts from which to draw sound conclusions. He rarely wrote on matters connected with his profession, but gave valuable aid to the members of his firm in the preparation of their books on 'Harbours,' 'Canal and River Engineering,' and Lighthouse Construction and Illumination ” all of which have become standard works, and have passed through several editions. When he did write on professional subjects it was with full knowledge and experience, as in his Paper on 'Modern Harbour Construction,' read before the Royal Scottish Society of Arts, in July, 1887, and for which he was awarded a medal.
One of the last pieces of business he was engaged in along with the members of the firm - David A. Stevenson and Charles A. Stevenson - was the project of connecting the East and West Coasts of Scotland by a ship canal capable of passing the largest merchantmen and Her Majesty’s ships of war.
Mr. Brebner was elected a member of the Institution in 1878 ; he was a man of sound judgment, and had the rare faculty of rapidly and accurately grasping the details of engineering problems. He had a ready and retentive memory, and was expert in methods of calculation. Of a quiet and unobtrusive disposition, he rarely interfered in matters outside the profession. Though reserved in manner, he was a warm-hearted friend, able and willing to give sound advice. He was in his usual health till about three weeks before his death, when he had a sudden attack of hemorrhage, and though this was overcome, his strength failed, and he died suddenly on the 5th March last.