- Engineering & Materials
- Francis, James Bicheno (1815–1892)
Francis, James Bicheno (1815–1892)
English-born U.S. hydraulics engineer who played a crucial role in the industrial development of part of New England. He made significant contributions to the understanding of fluid flow and to the development of the Francis-type water turbine for which he is remembered.
Francis was born on May 18, 1815 at Southleigh, Oxfordshire, the son of a railroad superintendent and builder. After a short education at Radleigh Hall and Wantage Academy, he became assistant to his father on canal and harbor works. Two years later, he was employed by the Great Western Canal Company.
He traveled to the United States in search of greater opportunities, arriving in New York City in the spring of 1833. There he was employed by Major George Washington Whistler (1800–1849) on building the Stonington Railroad, Connecticut. A year later when Whistler became chief engineer to “The Proprietors of the Locks and Canals on the Merrimack River,” a corporation known simply as the “Proprietors,” Francis went with him to Lowell, Massachusetts.
In 1837 Whistler resigned and Francis succeeded him. On July 12 the same year Francis married Sarah Wilbur Brownell of Lowell. When the Proprietors decided (in 1845) to develop the river's water-powered facilities, Francis was made chief engineer and general manager. He traveled briefly to England in 1849 to study timber preservation methods and on his return turned his attention to developing water turbines. In 1855 his famous work, The Lowell Hydraulic Experiments, was published.
Francis wrote more than 200 papers for learned societies and was president of the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1880. He advised on a number of important dam projects and was a member of the Massachusetts state legislature, president of the Stonybrook Railroad for 20 years, and for 43 years a director of the Lowell Gas Light Company.
He retired from active business in 1885, and was succeeeded by one of his sons. Francis died on September 18, 1892 and was survived by his wife and six children.
The industrialization of New England resulted initially from water power rather than steam. The leading part Francis played in the exploitation of the Merrimack River was thus at the time more important than his work on turbines.
The Proprietors' corporation had been formed in 1792, originally to improve navigation. Realizing the potential, a Boston group purchased 160 ha/400 acres near the Pawtucket Falls, a site that soon developed into the town of Lowell. The company built a 290-m/950-ft dam on the river, which produced a 11-m/35-ft head and 29 km/18 mi of backwater, the pondage feeding 11 independent mills.
One of Francis's responsibilities was the measurement of the flows used by each of the manufacturing companies along the river to assess costs. He made numerous tests on sharp-crested weirs, and determined the numerical values in the Francis weir formula, the form of which was suggested by his colleague, Uriah Atherton Boyden (1804–1879). The second (1868) edition of Francis's work included his studies of measurements with weighted floats.
Francis's work on turbines started when the Proprietors acquired, in the late 1840s, an interest in the patent turbine designed by Samuel B. Howd. This was a radial inflow (or “center-vent”) machine, which was effective but inefficient. Significantly, however, Francis had built (in 1847) a model wheel similar to Howd's, and it, too, was somewhat inefficient. Two years later several inwardflow wheels of 170 kW/230 hp each were built from Francis's design. Tests showed peak efficiencies of nearly 80%.
The Francis wheels of the development days were an improvement on those of Howd, but only to a small degree do the so-called Francis turbines of today resemble Francis's original designs. At the outset they utilized purely radial flow runners and they had neither the familiar scroll case nor the draft tube of modern units. Later engineers developed the design into the forerunner of the modern mixed-flow unit.
The reason Francis's name continues to be associated with the design presumably stemmed initially from the widespread attention attracted by his book and then from the adoption of the designation by the German and Swiss firms that led in its scientific development later in the century.
Francis also devised a complete system of water supply for fire protection and had it working in the Lowell district for many years before anything similar was in operation anywhere else. He designed and built hydraulic lifts, “guard locks,” for the guard gates of the Pawtucket Canal and a flood control system the “Francis Gate.” Between 1875 and 1876 he reconstructed the Pawtucket Dam.
Francis was largely responsible for Lowell's rise to industrial importance. In retrospect, however, this is less notable than the experimental work he did in connection with the flow of fluids over weirs, and the establishment of the Francis formula. His work on the inward-flow turbine was significant and after his death the Canadian Niagara Power Company installed Francis turbines developing 7,643 kW/ 10,250 hp at the famous falls.
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.