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William Fairbairn: Obituary IMechE

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Note: This is a sub-section of William Fairbairn

Sir William Fairbairn, Bart., LL.D., F.R.S., was born at Kelso in Roxburghshire on 19th February 1789, his father being a farmer there and afterwards land steward on an estate in Boss-shire.

He received the principal part of his early education at the parish school of Munlochy near Inverness, and later from his uncle the parish schoolmaster at Galashiels. At the age of sixteen he was apprenticed to the owners of the Percy Main Colliery, near Newcastle-on-Tyne, of which his father had been appointed manager, where he remained till he was twenty-one, and formed there the acquaintance of George Stephenson, then employed at Willington Quay near Newcastle.

In 1811 he went to seek employment in London, and worked at Mr. Rennie's and afterwards at Mr. Penn's at Greenwich. He was next engaged in Dublin in constructing for Mr. Robinson of the Phoenix Iron Works machinery for making nails.

In 1814 he obtained employment in Manchester as a working millwright under Mr. Adam Parkinson, with whom he remained two years, and then began business on his own account.

In 1817 he was joined by a former shopmate, Mr. James Lillie, and the partnership of Messrs. Fairbairn and Lillie was carried on for eighteen years.

From this time a full account of his life would almost involve the history of half a century of progress in mechanical science, in the development of the productive power of Manchester manufactures, in the application of iron to the building of ships, in the adoption of iron walls on land as well as on sea for purposes of military defence, and in a wide range of invention and discovery connected with the strength of materials of construction, and the economy of motive forces.

One of his earliest works was the renewal of the driving machinery in a large cotton-spinning mill in Manchester, in which he introduced light quick-running wrought-iron shafting in place of the cumbrous slow-moving cast-iron shafts that were then universal. The success with which this was performed, and the economy of power effected by the important improvements which he introduced, placed his firm at once in the front rank of engineering millwrights, and necessitated successive removals to larger premises. In 1826, having to fit up the water-wheels for extensive cotton-mills at Catrine Bank in Ayrshire, he introduced the construction known as the "ventilated bucket," in which the air contained in the bucket, instead of having to make its way past the water entering the bucket, quietly escaped at the back of the bucket above.

In 1829 he was employed upon the Forth and Clyde Canal to discover the best means of increasing the speed of canal boats, and the result of his experiments was the establishment of light iron passenger-boats, called fly-boats, travelling at a speed which previously had not been thought possible.

Having as early as 1831 built in Manchester a small sea-going iron vessel, he erected in 1836 extensive shipbuilding premises on the Thames at Millwall, where he carried on business for nearly fifteen years. It was in this yard, which was the earliest iron- shipbuilding establishment of any magnitude in England, that the experiments on the strength of iron tubes were conducted, which led to the determination of the dimensions and proportions of the Conway and Britannia tubular iron bridges, and the law by which the resistance of wrought iron to tension and compression is calculated; and to Mr. Fairbairn is due the mode of construction by a combination of rectangular cells, whereby the idea originally conceived by Mr. Robert Stephenson of using hollow structures, through the interior of which the traffic should pass, was rendered practicable in these bridges.

He very early directed his attention to the strength and other properties of wrought and cast iron, and in his extensive experiments and investigations engaged the mathematical assistance of the late Mr. Eaton Hodgkinson, placing the works at his disposal, suggesting experiments of practical value, and defraying the cost which attended them; these researches were continued over a number of years. Nothing of practical value seemed to escape Mr. Fairbairn in the use and application of iron. He invented about 1836 the machine for riveting by steam power the plates of boilers, ships, and bridges.

He improved the construction of boilers, and introduced the system of double flues and alternate firing, whereby fuel was economised and smoke consumed. He turned his attention to the causes and prevention of boiler explosions, and to the law which governs the density and pressure of steam; and in the course of his researches he discovered that the strength of boiler flues subjected to external pressure was inversely as their length, and he introduced an important improvement in their construction by the insertion of internal stiffening rings at short intervals.

He was an indefatigable writer, always ready to communicate his knowledge; and his numerous publications constitute standard works of reference in mechanical engineering science.

He became a Member of the Institution in 1847, the year of its commencement, and was elected President in 1854 and 1855. He contributed several papers to the Proceedings, including descriptions of the large winding and pumping engines built by his firm for the Dukinfield Colliery (1853 p. 137 and 1855 p. 177), and of the floating steam corn-mill constructed for use in the Crimea (1858 p. 155), and also of the tubular wrought-iron cranes erected at Keyham Dockyard, Devonport (1857 p. 87).

He was created a Baronet in 1869, in acknowledgement of his scientific attainments and services, which were also recognised by numerous learned societies both in this country and abroad.

His death took place at Moor Park, Surrey, the residence of his son-in-law, on 18th August 1874, in his 86th year.

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