Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Fairbairn, William
FAIRBAIRN, Sir WILLIAM (1789–1874), engineer, was born at Kelso, Roxburghshire, on 19 Feb. 1789. His father, Andrew Fairbairn, was a farm-servant and an expert ploughman; had been impressed during the American war, and on returning to Scotland married the daughter of a Jedburgh tradesman, named Henderson, by whom he had five children. Mrs. Fairbairn, though a delicate woman, was a good housewife, and till 1804 spun and manufactured all the clothes of the family. William learnt his letters from one ‘bowed Johnnie Ker,’ and acquired a little arithmetic and elementary knowledge at the parish school. His father farmed three hundred acres for a time under Lord Seaforth with the assistance of the elder children, while William had to take care of his delicate brother, Peter [q. v.] To save the trouble of carrying the child he constructed a ‘wagon’ with a few simple tools, and then took to building boats and little mills. He afterwards had a little plain schooling at Mullochy, under a Mr. Donald Fraser, and then learnt book-keeping under an uncle who kept a school at Galashiels. When fourteen years old he joined his family at Kelso, where they had been settled by the father, who was managing a farm near Knaresborough. William got employment at 3s. a week, until he was laid up by an accident, upon a bridge then being built by Rennie.
Towards the end of 1803 the elder Fairbairn moved with his family to a farm near Newcastle-on-Tyne belonging to the Percy Main colliery. William was employed in the colliery, and on 24 March 1804 was apprenticed to John Robinson, a millwright. He spent his leisure in reading, three days in the week being systematically allotted to mathematical studies and the others to general literature. He also applied his mechanical ingenuity to the construction of an orrery. Being appointed to the care of the engines at the colliery he got more time for reading, and became a member of the Shields library. Here he became a friend of George Stephenson. At the end of his apprenticeship, in March 1811, he obtained employment as a millwright at Newcastle, and afterwards in the construction of some works at Bedlington, where he met his future wife. The works being finished, he sailed for London in December 1811 with a fellow-workman named Hogg. They obtained employment after some difficulties. A clergyman named Hall introduced Fairbairn to the Society of Arts and to Tilloch, the founder of ‘Tilloch's Philosophical Magazine,’ and employed him in the construction of a steam-engine for digging. The machine failed after absorbing some of Fairbairn's savings. He made something by a sausage-machine, and set out for Bath and Dublin, where by October 1813 he had finished a nail machine, and then went to Manchester. Soon afterwards he married Dorothy, youngest daughter of John Mar, a Kelso burgess. He was employed by a master with whom in 1817 he has some disagreement about a new Blackfriars bridge at Manchester, and thereupon set up in partnership with an old shopmate, James Lillie. They soon acquired a good reputation by providing the machinery for a cotton-mill, and their business rapidly increased. In 1824 Fairbairn went to Zurich to erect two water-mills. By an ingenious contrivance he surmounted the difficulties due to the irregular supply of water, and constructed wheels which worked regularly whatever the height of the river. By 1830 Fairbairn and Lillie had a clear balance of near 40,000l., and were able besides to increase their works so as to employ three hundred hands.
Fairbairn became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1830. He now began to investigate the properties of iron boats with a special view to improving the system of canal traction. His partner was not favourable to the experiments which he undertook for the Forth and Clyde Company. The publication of his results brought him the thanks of the institution, and the company employed him to construct a light iron passage-boat called the Lord Dundas, which ran for two years between Port Dundas, Glasgow, and Port Eglintoun, Edinburgh.
Fairbairn and Lillie lost much at this time in a speculation for starting a cotton-mill, which crippled their resources as millwrights and led to a dissolution of the partnership, Lillie setting up in opposition to Fairbairn. Fairbairn now devoted his energies to ship-building. He first built his ships in sections at Manchester, but in 1835 decided to take works at Millwall, Poplar, in partnership with an old pupil, Andrew Murray. He was supported by government and the East India Company, but found the strain too great and abandoned the Millwall establishment, where two thousand hands were employed. At Manchester he undertook many engineering schemes, experimented on the properties of iron, and, to meet a strike of his workmen, introduced the riveting machine, which has made a revolution in the manufacture of boilers. He took great interest in questions connected with boilers, and founded an association for the prevention of boiler explosions.
In 1839 he inspected the government works at Constantinople, and was decorated by the sultan, who also gave him a firman to be ‘chief fabricator’ of machinery for the Turkish government in England. He was consulted in 1840 upon the drainage of the Haarlem lake. In 1841 he gave advice to the English government upon the prevention of accidents by machinery. In 1842 he took out a patent (17 July, No. 9409) for improvements in the construction of iron ships, which proved too troublesome for general application. He read a paper on the prevention of smoke before the British Association at York in 1844. When Stephenson designed the tubular bridge at the Menai Straits he consulted Fairbairn, who made many experiments, and was ultimately appointed to superintend the construction of the bridge ‘in conjunction with’ Stephenson. The tube was successfully raised in April 1848. Misunderstandings having arisen as to Fairbairn's precise position, he gave up his appointment, and in 1849 published ‘An Account of the Construction of the Britannia and Conway Tubular Bridges, with a complete History of their Progress,’ containing his own account of the affair. In October 1846 he took out a patent for the new principle of wrought-iron girders he had devised for the bridge, although Stephenson shared in the patent. He stated in 1870 that he had built and designed nearly a thousand bridges. In 1849–50 he submitted plans, which, however, were not adopted, for a bridge over the Rhine at Cologne. Fairbairn made many investigations into the properties of the earth's crust in conjunction with William Hopkins [q. v.], the Cambridge mathematician, and was a high authority upon all mechanical and engineering problems.
Fairbairn caught a chill, from which he never recovered, at the opening of the new buildings of Owens College in 1870. He died 18 Aug. 1874 at the house of his son-in-law, Mr. Bateman of Moor Park, Surrey. He was buried at Prestwick, Northumberland.
Fairbairn had seven sons and two daughters by his wife. He declined a knighthood in 1861, but accepted a baronetage in 1869. In 1840 he bought the Polygon, Ardwick, near Manchester, where he lived till his death, and received many distinguished visitors. He spoke often and well at the British Association and similar meetings. He served as juror in the London exhibitions of 1851 and 1862, and at the Paris exhibition of 1855. In 1855 he was made a member of the Legion of Honour, and he was a foreign member of the Institute of France. He received the gold medal of the Royal Society in 1860, and was president of the British Association in 1861. He received the honorary LL.D. degree of Edinburgh in 1860 and of Cambridge in 1862. He was president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1854, and of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society from 1855 to 1860. A full list of his numerous contributions to the ‘Transactions of the Royal Society’ and the proceedings of many scientific and learned bodies is given in the life by Mr. Pole.[Life of Sir W. Fairbairn, partly written by himself, edited and completed by W. Pole, 1877; Account of the Construction of the Britannia and Conway Bridges, 1849; Smiles's George and Robert Stephenson, and Industrial Biography; Iron, its History, Properties, &c.; Fortunes made in Business; various papers contributed by Fairbairn to the proceedings of scientific societies.]