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

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

1789 – 1874

William Fairbairn

Sir William Fairbairn, 1st Baronet of Ardwick, 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

  1. 1789 Born 19th February to Andrew Fairbairn, farm steward and Margaret Henderson. Baptised 8th March in Kelso, Scotland
  2. 1799-1803 Age: 10-14 Educated at Munlochy parish school, Ross-shire
  3. 1804-11 Age: 15 Apprentice millwright at Percy Main Colliery, Newcastle
  4. 1811-17 Age: 22 Journeyman millwright
  5. 1813 Age: 24 Settled in Manchester
  6. 1817 Age: 28 Established Fairbairn & Lillie, Manchester
  7. 1818 Age: 29 Transformed factory power transmission
  8. 1822 Age: 33 Major waterwheels, including Catrine and Deanston
  9. 1825-45 Age: 36- Experiments with Eaton Hodgkinson on Strength of Materials
  10. 1828-74 Age: 39- Stationary steam engines - beam, columnar, marine, horizontal
  11. 1830 Age: 41 Experiments on the Forth & Clyde Canal
  12. 1830 Age: 41 First iron bridge on a main-line railway
  13. 1830 Age: 41 Elected a Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers
  14. 1830-35 Age: 41- Shipbuilding at Ancoats
  15. 1832 Age: 43 Became Sole Principal
  16. 1835 Age: 46 First Iron steamship on the European Lakes
  17. 1835-44 Age: 46- 100 iron ships built at Millwall on the Thames
  18. 1836 Age: 47 Travis Brook Mill, Stockport
  19. 1836 Age: 47 Dixon's Shaddon Mill, Carlisle
  20. 1836 Age: 47 Bailey Brothers Mill, Stalybridge, with marine engine
  21. 1837 Age: 48 Mills in Russia
  22. 1837 Age: 48 First iron steamship certified by Lloyds
  23. 1837 Age: 48 Retained load/creep tests
  24. 1838 Age: 49 Vienna Locomotive Works
  25. 1838 Age: 49 First iron Royal Yacht, for Nicholas I of Russia
  26. 1838 Age: 49 Riveting machine patented
  27. 1838-39 Age: 49- Experiments on strength of iron plates and rivets
  28. 1838-62 Age: 49- 500 railway locomotives
  29. 1839 Age: 50 Factories in Turkey, including prefabricated corn mill
  30. 1839-40 Age: 50- High pressure pumping engine for Belgian coal-mine
  31. 1840 Age: 51 Iron Duke is the first iron steamship to cross the Atlantic
  32. 1841 Age: 52 The Rose is the first iron steamship to reach Australia
  33. 1844 Age: 55 Lancashire Boiler patented
  34. 1844 Age: 55 Steamship Sir Henry Pottinger for P&O
  35. 1845-9 Age: 56- Experiments for Britannia and Conway Tubular Bridges
  36. 1845- Age: 56- 1,000 tubular-girder, plate girder and lattice bridges
  37. 1846 Age: 57 First 'fireproof' mill in France, La Foudre, Rouen
  38. 1847 Age: 58 Pumping and winding engines at Astley Deep Pit, Dukinfield
  39. 1850 Age: 61 Elected Fellow of the Royal Society
  40. 1850- Age: 61- Tubular swan-neck cranes
  41. 1850 Age: 61 Cotton Mill, Gefle, Sweden
  42. 1851-3 Age: 62-4 Spinning and weaving Alpaca mill at Saltaire, near Bradford. The largest factory when built.
  43. 1852 Age: 63 Elected to Académie des Sciences, Paris
  44. 1854 Age: 65 Floating corn mill, Sebastopol, Crimea
  45. 1854 Age: 65 Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield
  46. 1854-55 Age: 65- Retires from day-to-day management - becomes consulting engineer
  47. 1854 Age: 65 President of the Institution of Mechanical Enginers
  48. 1855 Age: 66 Cotton Mills in Bombay
  49. 1857 Age: 68 Experiments on Resistance of Tubes to Collapse
  50. 1859 Age: 70 Elected Honorary Member of Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland
  51. 1859 Age: 70 Longest span bridge in Australia, Barwon, Victoria
  52. 1859-60 Age: 70- Dinting and Mottram Viaducts
  53. 1860 Age: 71 Awarded Honorary Doctorate (LLD) by University of Edinburgh
  54. 1860 Age: 71 Awarded Gold Medal by Royal Society
  55. 1861 Age: 72 President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science
  56. 1861-3 Age: 72- Publication of Mills and Millwork
  57. 1862 Age: 73 Sugar Refinery Warehouse, Dublin
  58. 1869 Age: 80 Honoured with Baronetcy
  59. 1865 Age: 76 Experiments in connection with Atlantic Telegraph Cable
  60. 1870 Age: 81 Patent for five-tube boiler
  61. 1874 Age: 85 Died 18th August in Moor Park, Farnham, Surrey, the home of his son-in-law, JF La Trobe Bateman

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 (a carte-de-visite and a mezzotint) of Fairbairn held in the National Portrait Gallery

There are two portraits (engravings) of Fairbairn in the Scottish 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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