Sir William Fairbairn - Encyclopedia

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SIR WILLIAM FAIRBAIRN, Bart. (1789-1874), Scottish engineer, was born on the 19th of February 1789 at Kelso, Roxburghshire, where his father was a farm-bailiff. In 1803 he obtained work at three shillings a week as a mason's labourer on the bridge then being built by John Rennie at Kelso; but within a few days he was incapacitated by an accident. Later in the same year, his father having been appointed steward on a farm connected with Percy Main Colliery near North Shields, he obtained employment as a carter in connexion with the colliery. In March 1804 he was bound an apprentice to a millwright at Percy Main, and then found time to supplement the deficiencies of his early education by systematic private study. It was at Percy Main that he made the acquaintance of George Stephenson, who then had charge of an engine at a neighbouring colliery. For some years subsequent to the expiry of his apprenticeship in 1811, he lived a somewhat roving life, seldom remaining long in one place and often reduced to very hard straits before he got employment. But in 1817 he entered into partnership with a shopmate, James Lillie, with whose aid he hired an old shed in High Street, Manchester, where he set up a lathe and began business. The firm quickly secured a good reputation, and the improvements in mill-work and water-wheels introduced by Fairbairn caused its fame to extend beyond Manchester to Scotland and even the continent of Europe. The partnership was dissolved in 183 2.

In 1830 Fairbairn had been employed by the Forth and Clyde Canal Company to make experiments with the view of determining whether it were possible to construct steamers capable of traversing the canal at a speed which would compete successfully with that of the railway; and the results of his investigation were published by him in 1831, under the title Remarks on Canal Navigation. His plan of using iron boats proved inadequate to overcome the difficulties of this problem, but in the development of the use of this material both in the case of merchant vessels and men-of-war he took a leading part. In this way also he was led to pursue extensive experiments in regard to the strength of iron. In 18 3 5 he established, in connexion with his Manchester business, a shipbuilding yard at Millwall, London, where he constructed several hundred vessels, including many for the royal navy; but he ultimately found that other engagements prevented him from paying adequate attention to the management, and at the end of fourteen years he disposed of the concern at a great loss. In 1837 he was consulted by the sultan of Turkey in regard to machinery for the government workshops at Constantinople. In 1845 he was employed, in conjunction with Robert Stephenson, in constructing the tubular railway bridges across the Conway and Menai Straits. The share he had in the undertaking has been the subject of some dispute; his own version is contained in a volume he published in 1849, Account of the Construction of the Britannia and Conway Tubular Bridges. In 1849 he was invited by the king of Prussia to submit designs for the construction of a bridge across the Rhine, but after various negotiations, another design, by a Prussian engineer, which was a modification of Fairbairn's, was adopted. Another matter which engaged much of Fairbairn's attention was steam boilers, in the construction of which he effected many improvements. Amid all the cares of business he found time for varied scientific investigation. In 1851 his fertility and readiness of invention greatly aided an inquiry carried out at his Manchester works by Sir William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) and J. P. Joule, at the instigation of William Hopkins, to determine the melting points of substances under great pressure; and from 1861 to 1865 he was employed to guide the experiments of the government committee appointed to inquire into the "application of iron to defensive purposes." He died at Moor Park, Surrey, on the 18th of August 1874. Fairbairn was a member of many learned societies, both British and foreign, and in 1861 served as president of the British Association. He declined a knighthood in 1861, but accepted a baronetcy in 1869.

His youngest brother, Sir Peter Fairbairn (1799-1861), founded a large machine manufacturing business in Leeds. Starting on a small scale with flax-spinning machinery, he subsequently extended his operations to the manufacture of textile machinery in general, and finally to that of engineering tools. He was knighted in 1858.

See The Life of Sir William Fairbairn, partly written by himself and edited and completed by Dr William Pole (1877).

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