William Fairbairn

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William Fairbairn
William Fairbairn portrait.jpg
by Benjamin Rawlinson Faulkner, in the foreground Observations of the Cold blast, referring to On the strength and properties of cast iron obtained from the Hot and Cold blast , presented at the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1838 [1]
Born(1789-02-19)19 February 1789
Died18 August 1874(1874-08-18) (aged 85)
Nationality British
Known forStructural ironwork
Lancashire Boiler

Sir William Fairbairn, 1st Baronet of Ardwick (19 February 1789 – 18 August 1874) was a Scottish civil engineer, structural engineer and shipbuilder. In 1854 he succeeded George Stephenson and Robert Stephenson to become the third president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. [2]

Scotland Country in Northwest Europe, part of the United Kingdom

Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It covers the northern third of the island of Great Britain, with a border with England to the southeast, and is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, the North Sea to the northeast, the Irish Sea to the south, and more than 790 islands, including the Northern Isles and the Hebrides.

Civil engineer engineer specialising in design, construction and maintenance of the built environment

A civil engineer is a person who practices civil engineering – the application of planning, designing, constructing, maintaining, and operating infrastructures while protecting the public and environmental health, as well as improving existing infrastructures that have been neglected.

Structural engineers analyze, design, plan, and research structural components and structural systems to achieve design goals and ensure the safety and comfort of users or occupants. Their work takes account mainly of safety, technical, economic and environmental concerns, but they may also consider aesthetic and social factors.


Early career

Born in Kelso to a local farmer, Fairbairn showed an early mechanical aptitude and served as an apprentice millwright in Newcastle upon Tyne where he befriended the young George Stephenson. He moved to Manchester in 1813 to work for Adam Parkinson and Thomas Hewes. In 1817, he launched his mill-machinery business with James Lillie as Fairbairn and Lillie Engine Makers.

Farmer Person that works in agriculture

A farmer is a person engaged in agriculture, raising living organisms for food or raw materials. The term usually applies to people who do some combination of raising field crops, orchards, vineyards, poultry, or other livestock. A farmer might own the farmed land or might work as a laborer on land owned by others, but in advanced economies, a farmer is usually a farm owner, while employees of the farm are known as farm workers, or farmhands. However, in the not so distant past, a farmer was a person who promotes or improves the growth of by labor and attention, land or crops or raises animals.

A millwright is a high-precision craftsman or skilled tradesperson who installs, dismantles, maintains, repairs, reassembles, and moves machinery in factories, power plants, and construction sites.

Newcastle upon Tyne City and metropolitan borough in England

Newcastle upon Tyne, commonly known as Newcastle, is a city in Tyne and Wear, North East England, 103 miles (166 km) south of Edinburgh and 277 miles (446 km) north of London on the northern bank of the River Tyne, 8.5 mi (13.7 km) from the North Sea. Newcastle is the most populous city in the North East, and forms the core of the Tyneside conurbation, the eighth most populous urban area in the United Kingdom. Newcastle is a member of the UK Core Cities Group and is a member of the Eurocities network of European cities.

Structural studies

The western end of the Conwy Railway Bridge next to the castle Conwy Castle and Railway Bridge.jpg
The western end of the Conwy Railway Bridge next to the castle

Fairbairn was a lifelong learner and joined the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1830. In the 1820s and 30s, he and Eaton Hodgkinson conducted a search for an optimal cross section for iron beams. They designed, for example, the bridge over Water Street for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, which opened in 1830. In the 1840s, when Robert Stephenson, the son of his youthful friend George, was trying to develop a way of crossing the Menai Strait, he retained both Fairbairn and Hodgkinson as consultants. It was Fairbairn who conceived the idea of a rectangular tube or box girder to bridge the large gap between Anglesey and North Wales. He conducted many tests on prototypes in his Millwall shipyard and at the site of the bridge, showing how such a tube should be constructed. The design was first used in a shorter span at Conway, and followed by the much larger Britannia Bridge. The tube bridge ultimately proved far too costly a concept for widespread use owing to the sheer mass and cost of wrought iron needed. Fairbairn himself developed wrought iron trough bridges which used some of the ideas he had developed in the tubular bridge.

Institution of Civil Engineers independent professional association, headquartered in central London

The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) is an independent professional association for civil engineers and a charitable body in the United Kingdom. Based in London, ICE has over 92,000 members, of whom three-quarters are located in the UK, while the rest are located in more than 150 other countries. The ICE aims to support the civil engineering profession by offering professional qualification, promoting education, maintaining professional ethics, and liaising with industry, academia and government. Under its commercial arm, it delivers training, recruitment, publishing and contract services. As a professional body, ICE aims to support and promote professional learning, managing professional ethics and safeguarding the status of engineers, and representing the interests of the profession in dealings with government, etc. It sets standards for membership of the body; works with industry and academia to progress engineering standards and advises on education and training curricula.

Eaton A. Hodgkinson FRS was an English engineer, a pioneer of the application of mathematics to problems of structural design.

Cross section (geometry) the intersection of a body in 3D space with a plane, or the analog in higher-dimensional space. Cutting an object into slices creates many parallel cross sections. A cross section of 3D space that is parallel to two of the axes is a contour line

In geometry and science, a cross section is the non-empty intersection of a solid body in three-dimensional space with a plane, or the analog in higher-dimensional spaces. Cutting an object into slices creates many parallel cross sections. The boundary of a cross section in three-dimensional space that is parallel to two of the axes, that is, parallel to the plane determined by these axes, is sometimes referred to as a contour line; for example, if a plane cuts through mountains of a raised-relief map parallel to the ground, the result is a contour line in two-dimensional space showing points on the surface of the mountains of equal elevation.


When the cotton industry fell into recession, Fairbairn diversified into the manufacture of boilers for locomotives and into shipbuilding. Perceiving a ship as a floating tubular beam, he criticised existing design standards dictated by Lloyd's of London.

Cotton Plant fiber from the genus Gossypium

Cotton is a soft, fluffy staple fiber that grows in a boll, or protective case, around the seeds of the cotton plants of the genus Gossypium in the mallow family Malvaceae. The fiber is almost pure cellulose. Under natural conditions, the cotton bolls will increase the dispersal of the seeds.

In economics, a recession is a business cycle contraction when there is a general decline in economic activity. Recessions generally occur when there is a widespread drop in spending. This may be triggered by various events, such as a financial crisis, an external trade shock, an adverse supply shock or the bursting of an economic bubble. In the United States, it is defined as "a significant decline in economic activity spread across the market, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in real GDP, real income, employment, industrial production, and wholesale-retail sales". In the United Kingdom, it is defined as a negative economic growth for two consecutive quarters.

Boiler closed vessel in which water or other fluid is heated

A boiler is a closed vessel in which fluid is heated. The fluid does not necessarily boil. The heated or vaporized fluid exits the boiler for use in various processes or heating applications, including water heating, central heating, boiler-based power generation, cooking, and sanitation.

Fairbairn and Lillie built the iron paddle-steamer Lord Dundas at Manchester in 1830. The difficulties which were encountered in the construction of iron ships in an inland town like Manchester led to the removal of this branch of the business to Millwall, London in 1834–35. Here Fairbairn constructed over eighty vessels, including Pottinger of 1,250 tons, for the Peninsular and Oriental Company; HMS Megaera and other vessels for the British Government, and many others, introducing iron shipbuilding on the River Thames. In 1848 he retired from this branch of his business. [3]

Iron Chemical element with atomic number 26

Iron is a chemical element with symbol Fe and atomic number 26. It is a metal that belongs to the first transition series and group 8 of the periodic table. It is by mass the most common element on Earth, forming much of Earth's outer and inner core. It is the fourth most common element in the Earth's crust.

Millwall area in London, England

Millwall is a district on the western and southern side of the Isle of Dogs, in east London, England, in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. It lies to the immediate south of Canary Wharf and Limehouse, north of Greenwich and Deptford, east of Rotherhithe, west of Cubitt Town, and has a long shoreline along London's Tideway, part of the River Thames. It was part of the County of Middlesex and from 1889 the County of London following the passing of the Local Government Act 1888, it later became part of Greater London in 1965.

HMS <i>Megaera</i> (1849) Ship

HMS Megaera was originally constructed as an iron screw frigate for the Royal Navy, and was one of the last and largest ships built by William Fairbairn's Millwall shipyard.

Fairbairn drew on his experience with the construction of iron-hulled ships when designing the Britannia Bridge and Conwy Railway Bridges.

Britannia Bridge bridge over the Menai Strait

Britannia Bridge is a bridge across the Menai Strait between the island of Anglesey and the mainland of Wales. It was originally designed and built by the noted railway engineer Robert Stephenson as a tubular bridge of wrought iron rectangular box-section spans for carrying rail traffic. Its importance was to form a critical link of the Chester and Holyhead Railway's route, enabling trains to directly travel between London and the port of Holyhead, thus facilitating a sea link to Dublin, Ireland..

Conwy Railway Bridge Grade I listed building in Conwy. Bridge in Conwy, north Wales

The Conwy Railway Bridge carries the North Wales coast railway line across the River Conwy between Llandudno Junction and the town of Conwy. The wrought iron tubular bridge, which is now Grade I listed, was built in the 19th century. It is the last surviving example of this type of design by Stephenson after the Britannia Bridge across the Menai Strait was destroyed in a fire in the 1970s.

Railway locomotives

Locomotive CP 02049 (Ex Companhia Central e Peninsular (CCeP) 14) CP 02049.jpg
Locomotive CP 02049 (Ex Companhia Central e Peninsular (CCeP) 14)

Fairbairn began building railway locomotives in 1839 with an 0-4-0 design for the Manchester and Bolton Railway. By 1862 the company had constructed more than 400 at Millwall for companies such as the Great Western Railway and the London and North Western Railway. However, as the works had no rail access, any locomotives had to be shipped by road. [4]


Fairbairn developed the Lancashire boiler in 1844. In 1861, at the request of the UK Parliament, he conducted early research into metal fatigue, raising and lowering a 3 tonne mass onto a wrought iron cylinder 3,000,000 times before it fractured and showing that a static load of 12 tonne was needed for such an effect.

He experimented with glass cylinders and was able to show that the hoop stress in the wall was twice the longitudinal stress. When a cylindrical boiler failed, it usually fractured along its length owing to the high hoop stress in the wall.

This knowledge of how hoop stress increased with diameter, and how stresses were independent of drum length led to his invention of the Fairbairn-Beeley and his five-tube boilers, where a single large diameter shell was replaced by multiple smaller, and less stressed, shells. Eventually this would lead to the near-universal adoption of water-tube boilers with small tubes for high pressures, replacing the older fire-tube designs.


Dee bridge disaster Dee bridge disaster.jpg
Dee bridge disaster

Fairbairn was one of the first engineers to conduct systematic investigations of failures of structures, including the collapse of textile mills and boiler explosions. His report on the collapse of a mill at Oldham showed the poor design methods used by architects when specifying cast iron girders for supporting heavily loaded floors, for example. In another report, he condemned the use of trussed cast iron girders, and advised Robert Stephenson not to use the concept in a bridge then being built over the river Dee at Chester in 1846. The bridge collapsed in May 1847, killing 5 people who were passengers on the local train passing over the structure at the time. The Dee Bridge disaster raised concerns about the integrity of many other railway bridges already built or about to be built on the rail network.

Fairbairn conducted some of the first serious studies of the effects of repeated loading of wrought and cast iron girders, showing that fracture could occur by crack growth from incipient defects, a problem now known as fatigue. He built large-scale testing apparatus for the studies, and was partly funded by the Board of Trade.

He also conducted experiments on pressurized cylinders of glass and was able to show that the highest stress in the wall occurs around the diameter. It is known as the hoop stress and is twice the value of the longitudinal stress which occurs along the length of the cylinder. The precise value depends only on the wall thickness and the internal pressure. His work was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society and was of great help in analysing failures in steam boilers and pipes. In 1854 he founded the Manchester Steam Users' Association, which quickly became recognised as setting national standards for high-pressure steam boilers. [5] As the "Associated Offices Technical Committee" of British insurers the MSUA remains a national certification authority. [6] [7]


Fairbairn is one of several notable engineers to be buried in the churchyard of St Mary's Church, Prestwich. The number of people present at his funeral was estimated at from 50,000 to 70,000. [15]


Further reading

See also

Related Research Articles

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Tubular bridge

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William Fairbairn and Sons, was an engineering works in Manchester, England.

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Balloon flange girder

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Fairbairn-Beeley boiler

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  1. "William Fairbairn (1789–1874)". Art UK. Public Catalogue Foundation. Retrieved 23 April 2016.
  2. 1 2 "Past Presidents" . Retrieved 15 June 2017.
  3. Young, C.F.T. (1867). "Chapter 3". The Fouling and Corrosion of Iron Ships: Their Causes and Means of Prevention, with Mode of Application to the Existing Iron-Clads. Chronology of Iron Ships. London: London Drawing Assoc.
  4. Marshall, John (1978). A biographical dictionary of railway engineers. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.
  5. Channing, John; Ridley, John (2003). Safety at work. Boston, Massachusetts: Butterworth Heinemann. p. 793. ISBN   0-7506-5493-7.
  6. Lancaster, John (2000). Engineering Catastrophes: Causes and Effects of Major Accidents (2 ed.). Cambridge, England: Woodhead. p. 68. ISBN   1-85573-505-9.
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  8. "Presidents' gallery" . Retrieved 15 June 2017.
  9. Complete list of the members and officers of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. 1896. p. 9. Retrieved 7 March 2011.
  10. Watson, Garth (1989). The Smeatonians. Thomas Telford. p. 65. ISBN   0-7277-1526-7.
  11. "No. 23544". The London Gazette . 8 October 1869. p. 5446.
  12. "Sir William Fairbairn" . Retrieved 9 September 2019.
  13. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography . Retrieved 25 November 2011.
  14. "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter F" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 13 September 2016.
  15. Pole, William. "Life of Sir William Fairbairn Chapter XXIII" . Retrieved 9 September 2019.
Baronetage of the United Kingdom
New creation Baronet
(of Ardwick)

Succeeded by
Thomas Fairbairn
Professional and academic associations
Preceded by
Robert Stephenson
President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers
Succeeded by
Joseph Whitworth