Cubitt, William

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b. 1785 Dilham, Norfolk, England
d. 13 October 1861 Clapham Common, Surrey, England
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English civil engineer and contractor.
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The son of a miller, he received a rudimentary education in the village school. At an early age he was helping his father in the mill, and in 1800 he was apprenticed to a cabinet maker. After four years he returned to work with his father, but, preferring to leave the parental home, he not long afterwards joined a firm of agricultural-machinery makers in Swanton in Norfolk. There he acquired a reputation for making accurate patterns for the iron caster and demonstrated a talent for mechanical invention, patenting a self-regulating windmill sail in 1807. He then set up on his own as a millwright, but he found he could better himself by joining the engineering works of Ransomes of Ipswich in 1812. He was soon appointed their Chief Engineer, and after nine years he became a partner in the firm until he moved to London in 1826. Around 1818 he invented the treadmill, with the aim of putting prisoners to useful work in grinding corn and other applications. It was rapidly adopted by the principal prisons, more as a means of punishment than an instrument of useful work.
From 1814 Cubitt had been gaining experience in civil engineering, and upon his removal to London his career in this field began to take off. He was engaged on many canal-building projects, including the Oxford and Liverpool Junction canals. He accomplished some notable dock works, such as the Bute docks at Cardiff, the Middlesborough docks and the coal drops on the river Tees. He improved navigation on the river Severn and compiled valuable reports on a number of other leading rivers.
The railway construction boom of the 1840s provided him with fresh opportunities. He engineered the South Eastern Railway (SER) with its daringly constructed line below the cliffs between Folkestone and Dover; the railway was completed in 1843, using massive charges of explosive to blast a way through the cliffs. Cubitt was Consulting Engineer to the Great Northern Railway and tried, with less than his usual success, to get the atmospheric system to work on the Croydon Railway.
When the SER began a steamer service between Folkestone and Boulogne, Cubitt was engaged to improve the port facilities there and went on to act as Consulting Engineer to the Boulogne and Amiens Railway. Other commissions on the European continent included surveying the line between Paris and Lyons, advising the Hanoverian government on the harbour and docks at Hamburg and directing the water-supply works for Berlin.
Cubitt was actively involved in the erection of the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851; in recognition of this work Queen Victoria knighted him at Windsor Castle on 23 December 1851.
Cubitt's son Joseph (1811–72) was also a notable civil engineer, with many railway and harbour works to his credit.
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Principal Honours and Distinctions
Knighted 1851. FRS 1830. President, Institution of Civil Engineers 1850 and 1851.
Further Reading
Obituary, 1862, Minutes of 'the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers 21:552– 8.
LRD

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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