Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame

Britannia Bridge

Britannia Bridge over the Menai Strait with Telford's Menai Bridge in the background. from broadsheet of the poem Stephenson Oak in ICE Archives

William Fairbairn Sir William Fairbairn, 1st Baronet of Ardwick (1789-1874), civil engineer, mechanical engineer, structural engineer and industrialist

Engineering Achievements

William Fairbairn was the greatest mill-builder and experimental engineer of the middle quarters of the nineteenth century, a major contributor to iron shipbuilding during the critical decade 1835-44, and to wrought-iron bridges during two of the most formative decades in bridge-building, 1845-64.

He advanced understanding of material strengths and properties which he applied in the design of multi-storey iron-framed mills, wrought iron ships (where he made a significant contribution to understanding the response to changing forces on the hull) and bridges. Fairbairn built 1000 bridges and his major contribution was in the design, testing and manufacture of iron bridges made from long riveted tubular section girders. Of these the two best known are the Conwy (1848) and Britannia (1850) bridges, the building of both being overseen by Robert Stephenson. Fairbairn stands as an icon of the heroic age of Victorian engineering, straddling the era of practically-trained ingenious millwright and professional engineer.

His Life

Age Event Year
Born 19th February to Andrew Fairbairn, farm steward and Margaret Henderson 1789
Baptised 8th March in Kelso, Scotland 1789
15- Apprentice millwright at Percy Main Colliery, Newcastle1804-11
22- Journeyman millwright 1811-17
24 Settled in Manchester 1813
28 Established Fairbairn & Lillie, Manchester 1817
29 Transformed factory power transmission1818
33 Major waterwheels, including Catrine and Deanston1822
36- Experiments with Eaton Hodgkinson on Strength of Materials 1825-45
41 Experiments on the Forth & Clyde Canal 1830
39- Stationary steam engines - beam, columnar, marine, horizontal1828-74
41 First iron bridge on a main-line railway1830
41- Shipbuilding at Ancoats1830-35
43 Became Sole Principal1832
46 First Iron steamship on the European Lakes1835
46- 100 iron ships built at Millwall on the Thames1835-44
47 Travis Brook Mill, Stockport1836
47 Dixon's Shaddon Mill, Carlisle1836
47 Bailey Brothers Mill, Stalybridge, with marine engine1836
48 Mills in Russia1837
48 First iron steamship certified by Lloyds1837
48 Retained load/creep tests1837
49 Vienna Locomotive Works1838
49 First iron Royal Yacht, for Nicholas I of Russia1838
49 Riveting machine patented1838
49- Experiments on strength of iron plates and rivets1838-39
49- 500 railway locomotives1838-62
50 Factories in Turkey, including prefabricated corn mill1839
50- High pressure pumping engine for Belgian coal-mine1839-40
51 Iron Duke is the first iron steamship to cross the Atlantic1840
52 The Rose is the first iron steamship to reach Australia1841
55 Lancashire Boiler patented1844
55 Steamship Sir Henry Pottinger for P&O1844
56 First 'fireproof' mill in France, La Foudre, Rouen1845
56- Experiments for Britannia and Conway Tubular Bridges1845-49
56- 1,000 tubular-girder, plate girder and lattice bridges1845 -
58 Pumping and winding engines at Astley Deep Pit, Dukinfield1847
61 Elected Fellow of the Royal Society1850
61- Tubular swan-neck cranes1850 -
62 Cotton Mill, Gefle, Sweden1851
63 Elected to Académie des Sciences, Paris1852
65 Factory at Saltaire, near Bradford1854
65 Floating corn mill, Sebastopol, Crimea1854
65 Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield1854
65- Retires from day-to-day management - becomes consulting engineer1854-55
65 President of the Institution of Mechanical Enginers1854
66 Cotton Mills in Bombay1855
68 Experiments on Resistance of Tubes to Collapse1857
70 Elected Honorary Member of Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland1859
70 Longest span bridge in Australia, Barwon, Victoria1859
70- Dinting and Mottram Viaducts1859-60
71 Awarded Honorary Doctorate by University of Edinburgh1860
71 Awarded Gold Medal by Royal Society1860
72 President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science1861
72- Publication of Mills and Millwork1861-3
73 Sugar Refinery Warehouse, Dublin1862
80 Honoured with Baronetcy1869
76 Experiments in connection with Atlantic Telegraph Cable1865
81 Patent for five-tube boiler1870
85 Died 18th August in Moor Park, Farnham, Surrey, the home of his son-in-law, JF La Trobe Bateman 1874

His Legacy

Fairbairn was a great experimentalist, demonstrating the value of performing tests and trials to help develop designs. He wrote and lectured extensively to learned societies, and some of his books became standard texts for practising engineers. Mills and Millwork (in two Parts, 1861 and 1863) went to three editions in his lifetime. He trained a significant number of gifted engineers including five who became Professors of Engineering. It is to Fairbairn and Rankine that modern mechanical engineering science owes its origin: Rankine made unique contributions to theory and Fairbairn's unique place in engineering history is as the master of engineering experiment. More than any of his contemporaries he pointed the way to advances in engineering by scientific experiment. His obituary in The Engineer included:

"it is difficult to discover a branch of the art of mechanical engineering to which Fairbairn has not contributed something. His footprints may be found on every path that the engineer can tread, and the sands of time will never eface them."

More Information

Remarks on Canal Navigation etc William Fairbairn, London, 1831
Observations on Improvements of the Town of Manchester etc William Fairbairn, Manchester, 1836
A List of Wheel Patterns, etc William Fairbairn, Manchester, 1842
An account of the Construction of the Britannia and Conway Tubular Bridges, and Atlas William Fairbairn, London, 1849
On the Application of Cast and Wrought Iron to Building Purposes William Fairbairn, London, 1854
Useful Information for Engineers William Fairbairn, London, 1856
Iron, its History, Properties and Processes of Manufacture William Fairbairn, C.E., Edinburgh, 1861
Treatise on Mills and Millwork William Fairbairn, Esq., C.E. London. Part I (1861); Part II (1863)
Treatise on Iron Ship Building: its History and Progress William Fairbairn, London, 1865

Lives of the engineers, S. Smiles, new edn, 1874
Sir William Fairbairn, The Engineer, p.154, 21st August 1874
Obituary, Sir William Fairbairn, Bart., F.R.S., 1789-1874, Minutes of the Proceedings of the ICE, Vol.39, pp.251-264, London, 1875
The life of Sir William Fairbairn, bart., William Pole, ed., Longmans, Green & Co. 1877
William Fairbairn: the experimental engineer Richard Byrom, Railway and Canal Historical Society, 2017
Fairbairn, Sir William, FRS. Entry in Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers. Vol 2. pp.272-276. James Sutherland, 2008.
There is a statue of Sir WIlliam Fairbairn in Manchester Town Hall
A portrait of Fairbairn by Charles Allen du Val was exhibited at the Royal Manchester Insitution and the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1869
There are two portraits of Fairbairn held in the National Portrait Gallery.
There are eight Lancashire Boilers in the National Mining Museum, Scotland
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry (full text available to subscribers and UK library members)

Thanks to Richard Byrom, most recent and comprehensive biographer of William Fairbairn, for his assistance in compiling this page.

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