- Engineering & Materials
- Fairbairn, William (1789–1874)
Fairbairn, William (1789–1874)
Scottish engineer who designed a riveting machine that revolutionized the making of boilers for steam engines. He also worked on many bridges, including the wrought-iron box-girder construction used first on the bridge across the Menai Straits in North Wales.
Fairbairn was born into a poor family on February 19, 1789, at Kelso. He received little early education, although he did learn to read at the local parish school. He started work when he was 14 years old when his family moved to a farm owned by the Percy Main colliery near Newcastle upon Tyne; Fairbairn became apprenticed to a millwright. He learned mathematics in his spare time and displayed his engineering ingenuity by constructing an orrery (a working model of the solar system).
He finished his apprenticeship in 1811 having, in the meantime, become a friend of the engineers George and Robert Stephenson. He worked as a millwright at Bedlington, then took a series of jobs in London, Bath, Dublin, and Manchester. During this time he invented a sausage-making machine and a machine for making nails. In Manchester he worked on the construction of the Blackfriars Bridge and then set up as a manufacturer of cotton-mill machinery. In 1824 Fairbairn erected two watermills in Zürich, and later turned his attention to ship-building and, finally, bridge-building.
In 1862 he invented a self-acting planning machine for dealing with work up to 6 m/20 ft by 1.8 m/6 ft. He became an authority on mechanical and engineering problems and received many honors and awards, including a baronetcy in 1869. Fairbairn died on August 18, 1874, at Moor Park in Surrey and was buried at Prestwick, Northumberland.
From very humble beginnings, Fairbairn used his inventive skills and engineering ability to earn a fortune by the time he was 40 years old. He had acquired a sound reputation for producing machinery for the cotton mills and by that time employed about 300 workers. His reputation abroad had been enhanced when he solved the problem of an irregular water supply with his watermills in Switzerland.
In 1830 he was commissioned by the Forth of Clyde Company to build a light iron boat to run between Glasgow and Edinburgh. He then concentrated on shipbuilding, first in Manchester (where he built ships in sections) then from 1835 in Millwall on the River Thames, where his Millwall Iron Works employed some 2,000 people.
Fairbairn returned to Manchester, and in 1844 designed and built the first Lancashire shellboiler. It was constructed of rolled wrought-iron plates rivetted together by a machine of his own design. It was this expertise that led Robert Stephenson to consult Fairbairn over the building of the Menai Railway Bridge, which was constructed of wrought-iron plates. Built between 1846 and 1850, it was the longest railroad bridge at the time with a continuous box girder (in which the trains ran) 461 m/1,511 ft long.
From the Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography, © RM, 2020. All rights reserved. Published under license in AccessScience, © McGraw-Hill Education, 2000–2020. Helicon Publishing is a division of RM.