Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Bramwell, Frederick Joseph

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BRAMWELL, Sir FREDERICK JOSEPH (1818–1903), engineer, born on 7 March 1818 in Finch Lane, Cornhill, was younger son of George Bramwell, a partner in the firm of Dorrien & Co., bankers, of Finch Lane, afterwards amalgamated with Glyn, Mills, Currie & Co. His mother was Elizabeth Frith. His elder brother, George, Lord Bramwell [q. v. Suppl. I], attained eminence at the bar and on the bench. After attending the Palace School, Enfield, Frederick was apprenticed in 1834 to John Hague, a mechanical engineer, whose works in Cable Street, Wellclose Square, were afterwards bought up by the Blackwall Rope railway. Hague invented a system for propelling railway trains by means of atmospheric pressure, which was adopted with some success on a short railway in Devonshire. Bramwell, impressed by the contrivance, joined about 1845 another of Hague's pupils, Samuel Collett Homersham (afterwards a surveyor), in projecting a scheme for an atmospheric railway in a low-level tunnel from the Bank via Charing Cross to Hyde Park Corner. The details of the scheme (including hydraulic lifts to raise the passengers) were worked out, but nothing came of it (cf. a paper by Bramwell before the Institution of Mechanical Engineers at Plymouth in 1899, reprinted in Engineering, lxviii. 246-280). Equally abortive was a more modest proposal to construct an experimental atmospheric railway from Waterloo station over Hungerford suspension bridge to Hungerford Market. In Hague's engineering works Bramwell also studied methods of steam propulsion on common roads, and while still an apprentice came to know Walter Hancock [q. v.], who first constructed a successful road locomotive. In later life Bramwell was sole survivor of those associated with the first experiments in steam-carriages, which the development of railroads killed. A paper which he read before the British Association in 1894 (reprinted in Engineering, lviii. 222) on 'Steam Locomotion on Common Roads' is a valuable contemporary record of this phase of the history of locomotion.

At the expiration of his indentures Bramwell became chief draughtsman and afterwards manager in Hague's office. Under his supervision in 1843 a locomotive of 10 tons weight was constructed for the Stockton and Darlington railway. The engine was taken to Middlesbrough by sea, and Bramwell drove it between Stockton and Darlington. On leaving Hague's employ he became manager of an engineering factory in the Isle of Dogs, and was connected with the Fairfield railway works, Bow, then under the management of William Bridges Adams [q. v.].

In 1853 Bramwell set up in business on his own account, and snaring some of his brother's aptitude for advocacy, soon left the constructive side of his profession almost exclusively for the legal and consultative side. He early showed great facility of exposition and a gift for describing complicated mechanical details in clear and simple language. A quick intelligence, a power of rapidly assimilating information, a ready wit, and a handsome presence, to which in after years age lent dignity, rendered him an invaluable witness in scientific and especially in patent cases. Yet it was not till he was over forty that he made 400l. in any one year. In 1860 he took with hesitation an office at No. 35A Great George Street. Thenceforth his practice as a consultant rapidly increased, and within ten years his income grew very large.

Bramwell was perhaps the first to practise regularly as a scientific witness or technical advocate, and the legal cast of his mind and his alertness of wit made him the ablest and most skilful scientific witness of his time. His information was always sound and in accord with the best scientific knowledge of the day, although he did not profess that it was unbiassed. A keen mechanical instinct enabled him to contrive ingenious models for the illustration of his evidence. In parliamentary committee-rooms, where he dealt almost entirely with questions of civil engineering, Bramwell soon gained as great a reputation as in the law courts. His authority on questions relating to municipal and water-works engineering especially became so high that he was permanently retained by all the eight water companies of London. In his later life he was chiefly in request as an arbitrator, where his forensic capacity and judicial temper found full scope. Although he was not responsible for any important engineering works, he as chairman of both the East Surrey Water Company from 1882 until his death and of the Kensington and Knightsbridge Electric Lighting Company supervised the construction of much of the two companies' works. Among the few constructive undertakings which may be put to his credit was the designing and execution of a sewage disposal scheme for Portsmouth, which had certain original features from the low levels of parts of the district.

Bramwell, whose only relaxation was in variety of work, was indefatigable in honorary service to the various societies and institutions of which he was a member. Here he showed to advantage his exceptional gifts of speech and his powers of historical survey. He joined the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1854, was elected to the council in 1864, and became president in 1874, when he reviewed the history and progress of mechanical engineering. To the interests of the Institution of Civil Engineers, which was 'born in the year' of his own birth, and which he joined in 1856, being elected to the council in 1867 and becoming president in 1884, he was especially devoted; his presidential address in 1885 summarised the course of invention since 1862. He was a vice-president of the Institution of Naval Architects, and served many years on its council. He became a member of the British Association in 1865 and he regularly attended the annual meetings for many years. Ho was president of section 'G' (mechanical science, afterwards engineering) in 1872 at Brighton, and again in 1884, when the association met at Montreal. In 1888 he was elected president of the Association at the Bath meeting, and in his address brilliantly vindicated the claims of applied science and technology. He was always a leading spirit at the convivial 'Red Lion' dinner, with which the more serious labours of the association were lightened. In 1874 he joined the Society of Arts, and for twenty-eight years he served continuously on its council, of which he was chairman in 1881 and 1882, giving an address on the first occasion on the industrial applications of science, and on the second occasion on the law of patents. He was president in the interval between King Edward VII' s resignation of the office on his accession in 1901 and the election of the Prince of Wales (King George V). In 1885 he became honorary secretary of the Royal Institution, and held the office till 1900, discharging its duties with the utmost regularity.

Bramwell was a liveryman of the Goldsmiths' Company, having being apprenticed to his father 'to learn his art of a banker.' He was prime warden of the company 1877-8. As representative of the company on the council of the City and Guilds Institute for the promotion of technical education (established in 1878) he became the first chairman, and filled the post with energy and efficiency until his death. He was knighted on 18 July 1881 on the occasion of the laying of the first stone of the City and Guilds Institute by the Prince of Wales at South Kensington. He was also chairman of the Inventions Exhibition in 1885, the second of the successful series organised at South Kensington by Sir Francis Philip Cunliffe-Owen [q. v.].

In later life Bramwell was constantly employed by government on various departmental committees. When the ordnance committee was appointed in 1881 he was made one of its two lay members, and he continued in the post for life. Many honorary distinctions were accorded him. He was elected to the fellowship of the Royal Society in 1873, and in 1877-8 served on its council. In 1875 he was elected a member of the Société des Ingénieurs Civils do France. He was made D.C.L. of Oxford in 1886 and of Durham in 1889; LL.D. of McGill (Montreal) University in 1884, and of Cambridge in 1892. He was created a baronet in 1889. Active to the last, Bramwell attended meetings at the Society of Arts and at the Institution of Civil Engineers within a month of his death, and was at work in his office on 10 Nov. 1903. He died on 30 Nov. 1903 at his residence, 1a, Hyde Park Gate, from cerebral haemorrhage, and was buried at Hever in Kent, where he possessed a small property.

Despite his devotion to the cause of scientific and technical education, Bramwell's intellect was not cast in the scientific mould, and his interests were mainly confined to the practical applications of science, the developments of which he eagerly watched in his own time, and anticipated with something like prophetic insight. When, at the jubilee meeting of the British Association at York in 1881, he described the previous fifty years' progress in mechanical engineering, he predicted that in 1931, after another half-century, the internal combustion engine would have superseded the steam-engine, which by that time (he added with humorous exaggeration) would be looked upon as merely 'a curiosity to be found in a museum.' In 1903, realising that the rapid development of the new form of motor was confirming his prophecy, he sent to the president of the association, (Sir) James Dewar, 50l., to be invested so as to produce about 100l. by 1931, when that sum should be awarded for a paper which, taking as its text his utterances in 1881, should deal with the relation between steam engines and internal combustion engines in 1931.

Besides numerous contributions to the proceedings of societies, Sir Frederick was author of the article on James Watt in this Dictionary and of many letters to 'The Times,' sometimes in his own name, sometimes (after the death of his brother, who used the same initial) signed B.

Bramwell married in 1847 his first cousin, Harriet Leonora, daughter of Joseph Frith. She died in 1907, aged ninety-two. There were three daughters. The second daughter, Eldred, married Sir Victor Horsley, F.R.C.S. The baronetcy became extinct on Bramwell's death.

The Institution of Civil Engineers possesses a portrait by Frank Holl, R.A., painted when he was president, and the Society of Arts one by Seymour Lucas, R.A., painted after his death. There is a marble bust executed in 1901 by Onslow Ford, R.A., at the Royal Institution.

[Personal knowledge; Proc. Inst. C.E. clvi. 426; Proc. Inst. Mech. Eng. Deo. 1903, pp. 3-4, 913; Engineer, 4 Dec. 1903; Engineering, 4 Dec. 1903; Journal Soc. Arts, lii. 07; The Times, 1 Dec. 1903.]

H. T. W.