Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Fairlie, Robert Francis

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FAIRLIE, ROBERT FRANCIS (1831–1885), civil engineer, born in Scotland in March 1831, was the son of an engineer of some eminence. His practical training in locomotive work was received at Crewe and at Swindon. During a strike in 1851 he showed his skill by acting as engine-driver for several days, with Lord Robert Grosvenor for his fireman.

In 1853 Fairlie was appointed superintendent and general manager of the Londonderry and Coleraine railway, a post which he soon changed for a more lucrative position on the Bombay and Baroda railway. Having thus gained much practical experience Fairlie established himself in business in Gracechurch Street, London, as a consulting engineer. It was here that in 1864 Fairlie patented the ‘double-bogie engine,’ intended to meet the difficulties which had prevented the extension of railways in hilly and thinly populated countries. Fairlie's principle was to use a narrow-gauge line—from 1 ft. 10 in. to 3 ft. 4 in.—and to employ the whole weight of the fuel and water, as well as of the engine itself, to increase the adhesion to the rails. The engine was provided with a very long boiler placed on two swivelling trucks or ‘bogies,’ which carried also the steam cylinders.

The first double-bogie engine was built by James Cross & Co. of St. Helens, for the Neath and Brecon railway, in 1866, and its weight was forty-six tons. About this time Fairlie was requested to double the ‘toy railway’ (the gauge is only 1 ft. 11½ in.) from the Welsh slate port of Portmadoc to the quarries at Tan-y-bwlch and Festiniog—a distance of fourteen miles—which for some years had been worked by mule-power. Instead of doubling the line Fairlie adapted his new engine to it with complete success. His first engine, the ‘Little Wonder,’ pulled a train of slate trucks a quarter of a mile in length and weighing nearly three hundred tons, and this over a tortuous line with steep gradients. The fame of Fairlie's narrow-gauge lines and double-bogie engines soon led to their introduction into Russia, New Zealand, Sweden, Australia, Cape of Good Hope, Mexico, Brazil, &c., and the inventor began to reap a rich reward. On the Iquique railway in Peru Fairlie engines weighing eighty-five tons were used with complete success. Fairlie proposed further developments of his system. Vested interests were, however, too strong to admit of his methods being practised on a large scale in England, and the early death of the inventor prevented him from completing and pushing his plans. On the Moscow and St. Petersburg line ‘Fairlie's railway’ was so complete a success that the czar had a special gold medal struck in honour of the inventor.

In 1873 Fairlie was requested to design and construct a system of railways for the republic of Venezuela. He sailed in December and had a sunstroke soon after landing at Trinidad. This was followed by jungle fever, caught while surveying the marshes near Puerto Cabello, and it was with great difficulty he was conveyed to Colon and thence to England. From this illness he never fully recovered, though he had previously been a man of remarkable strength. He died at his house, the Woodlands, Clapham Common, on 31 July 1885. Fairlie was twice married, and left a wife and five children.

[Times, 18 Feb. and 1 March 1870, and 3 Aug. 1885; Engineer, 7 Aug. 1885; Engineering, 7 Aug. 1885.]

W. J. H.