Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame

Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame

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

William Fairbairn

William Fairbairn was born to a farm steward in Kelso in 1789. His father's work took him to Newcastle upon Tyne and in 1804 Fairbairn was apprenticed to a nearby colliery engineer at North Shields. He travelled to London in 1811, subsequently moving around extensively until settling in Manchester in 1816 which was then experiencing huge growth in its textile industries. Fairbairn established an engineering business there in 1817, first repairing mill machinery and then going on to design and equip whole mills.

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. In 1835 Fairbairn opened a shipyard on the River Thames at Millwall in London, and in 1837 invented a machine for riveting iron plates. At Millwall he not only made steam ships and bridges but also cranes and steam locomotives. 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.

In the field of power generation Fairbairn did much work to optimise the efficiency of water wheels, and also to design more efficient boilers for raising steam, introducing the double flue Lancashire boiler (1844) which was widely adopted. Allied to this Fairbairn took a great interest in boiler safety and in studying the factors leading to boiler explosion.

Fairbairn was a great experimentalist, performing tests and trials to help him develop his designs and he wrote and lectured extensively to learned societies, and some of his books became standard texts for practising engineers. Mills and millwork (1861) went through multiple editions in his lifetime.

His career progressed from machine repairer to designer, manufacturer, consultant and specialist technical investigator, not only in Britain but across Europe and the British Empire. Fairbairn thus stands as an emblem of the heroic age of Victorian engineering, straddling the era of practically-trained ingenious mechanic and professional engineer.

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