Fairbairn, William

SUBJECT AREA: Ports and shipping
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b. 19 February 1789 Kelso, Roxburghshire, Scotland
d. 18 August 1874 Farnham, Surrey, England
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Scottish engineer and shipbuilder, pioneer in the use of iron in structures.
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Born in modest circumstances, Fairbairn nevertheless enjoyed a broad and liberal education until around the age of 14. Thereafter he served an apprenticeship as a millwright in a Northumberland colliery. This seven-year period marked him out as a man of determination and intellectual ability; he planned his life around the practical work of pit-machinery maintenance and devoted his limited free time to the study of mathematics, science and history as well as "Church, Milton and Recreation". Like many before and countless thousands after, he worked in London for some difficult and profitless years, and then moved to Manchester, the city he was to regard as home for the rest of his life. In 1816 he was married. Along with a workmate, James Lillie, he set up a general engineering business, which steadily enlarged and ultimately involved both shipbuilding and boiler-making. The partnership was dissolved in 1832 and Fairbairn continued on his own. Consultancy work commissioned by the Forth and Clyde Canal led to the construction of iron steamships by Fairbairn for the canal; one of these, the PS Manchester was lost in the Irish Sea (through the little-understood phenomenon of compass deviation) on her delivery voyage from Manchester to the Clyde. This brought Fairbairn to the forefront of research in this field and confirmed him as a shipbuilder in the novel construction of iron vessels. In 1835 he operated the Millwall Shipyard on the Isle of Dogs on the Thames; this is regarded as one of the first two shipyards dedicated to iron production from the outset (the other being Tod and MacGregor of Glasgow). Losses at the London yard forced Fairbairn to sell off, and the yard passed into the hands of John Scott Russell, who built the I.K. Brunel -designed Great Eastern on the site. However, his business in Manchester went from strength to strength: he produced an improved Cornish boiler with two firetubes, known as the Lancashire boiler; he invented a riveting machine; and designed the beautiful swan-necked box-structured crane that is known as the Fairbairn crane to this day.
Throughout his life he advocated the widest use of iron; he served on the Admiralty Committee of 1861 investigating the use of this material in the Royal Navy. In his later years he travelled widely in Europe as an engineering consultant and published many papers on engineering. His contribution to worldwide engineering was recognized during his lifetime by the conferment of a baronetcy by Queen Victoria.
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Principal Honours and Distinctions
Created Baronet 1869. FRS 1850. Elected to the Academy of Science of France 1852. President, Institution of Mechnical Engineers 1854. Royal Society Gold Medal 1860. President, British Association 1861.
Bibliography
Fairbairn wrote many papers on a wide range of engineering subjects from water-wheels to iron metallurgy and from railway brakes to the strength of iron ships. In 1856 he contributed the article on iron to the 8th edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Further Reading
W.Pole (ed.), 1877, The Life of Sir William Fairbairn Bart, London: Longmans Green; reprinted 1970, David and Charles Reprints (written in part by Fairbairn, but completed and edited by Pole).
FMW

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

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