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William Fairbairn

William Fairbairn
Born (1789-02-19)19 February 1789
Died 18 August 1874(1874-08-18) (aged 85)
Moor Park, Farnham

Sir William Fairbairn, 1st Baronet (of Ardwick) (19 February 1789 – 18 August 1874) was a Scottish civil engineer, structural engineer and shipbuilder.


  • Early career 1
  • Structural studies 2
  • Shipbuilding 3
  • Railway locomotives 4
  • Boilers 5
  • Investigations 6
  • Honours 7
  • Works 8
  • References 9

Early career

Born in Manchester in 1813 to work for Adam Parkinson and Thomas Hewes. In 1817, he launched his mill-machinery business with James Lillie as Fairbairn and Lillie Engine Makers.

Structural studies

The western end of the Conwy Railway Bridge next to the castle
Section of the original wrought-iron Britannia Bridge standing in front of the modern bridge

Fairbairn was a lifelong learner and joined the Menai Strait, he retained both Fairbairn and Hodgkinson as consultants. It was Fairbairn who conceived of the idea of a rectangular tube or box girder to bridge the large gap between Anglesey and North Wales. He conducted many tests on prototypes in his Millwall shipyard and at the site of the bridge, showing how such a tube should be constructed. The design was first used in a shorter span at Conway, and followed by the much larger Britannia Bridge. The tube bridge ultimately proved far too costly a concept for widespread use owing to the sheer mass and cost of wrought iron needed. Fairbairn himself developed wrought iron trough bridges which used some of the ideas he had developed in the tubular bridge.


When the cotton industry fell into recession, Fairbairn diversified into the manufacture of boilers for locomotives and into shipbuilding. Perceiving a ship as a floating tubular beam, he criticised existing design standards dictated by Lloyd's of London.

Steamship Minerva, 19 July 1835, Rapperswil (SG) on Lake Zurich, Switzerland

Fairbairn and Lillie built the iron paddle-steamer Lord Dundas at Manchester in 1830. The difficulties which were encountered in the construction of iron ships in an inland town like Manchester led to the removal of this branch of the business to Millwall, London in 1834-5. Here Fairbairn constructed over eighty vessels, including the Pottinger of 1250 tons, for the Peninsular and Oriental Company; the HMS Megaera and other vessels for the British Government, and many others, introducing iron shipbuilding on the River Thames. In 1848 he retired from this branch of his business.[1]

Fairbairn drew on his experience with the construction of iron-hulled ships when designing the Britannia Bridge and Conwy Railway Bridges.

Railway locomotives

Fairbairn began building railway locomotives in 1839 with an 0-4-0 design for the Manchester and Bolton Railway. By 1862 the company had constructed more than 400 at Millwall for companies such as the Great Western Railway and the London and North Western Railway. However, as the works had no rail access, any locomotives had to be shipped by road.[2]


Fairbairn developed the Lancashire boiler in 1844. In 1861, at the request of the UK Parliament, he conducted early research into metal fatigue, raising and lowering a 3 tonne mass onto a wrought iron cylinder 3,000,000 times before it fractured and showing that a static load of 12 tonne was needed for such an effect. He experimented with glass cylinders and was able to show that the hoop stress in the wall was twice the longitudinal stress. When a cylindrical boiler failed, it usually fractured along its length owing to the high hoop stress in the wall.


Fairbairn was one of the first engineers to conduct systematic investigations of failures of structures, including the collapse of textile mills and boiler explosions. His report on the collapse of a mill at Oldham showed the poor design methods used by architects when specifying cast iron girders for supporting heavily loaded floors, for example. In another report, he condemned the use of trussed cast iron girders, and advised Robert Stephenson not to use the concept in a bridge then being built over the river Dee at Chester in 1846. The bridge collapsed in May 1847, killing 5 people who were passengers on the local train passing over the structure at the time. The Dee Bridge disaster raised concerns about the integrity of many other railway bridges already built or about to be built on the rail network.

Fairbairn conducted some of the first serious studies of the effects of repeated loading of wrought and cast iron girders, showing that fracture could occur by crack growth from incipient defects, a problem now known as fatigue. He built large-scale testing apparatus for the studies, and was partly funded by the Board of Trade.

He also conducted experiments on pressurized cylinders of glass and was able to show that the highest stress in the wall occurs around the diameter. It is known as the hoop stress and is twice the value of the longitudinal stress which occurs along the length of the cylinder. The precise value depends only on the wall thickness and the internal pressure. His work was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society and was of great help in analysing failures in steam boilers and pipes. In 1854 he founded the Manchester Steam Users' Association, which quickly became recognised as setting national standards for high-pressure steam boilers.[3] As the "Associated Offices Technical Committee" of British insurers the MSUA remains a national certification authority.[4][5]


Fairbairn is one of several notable engineers to be buried in the churchyard of St Mary's Church, Prestwich.


  • Remarks on Canal Naviation. London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown & Green. 1831. Retrieved 2009-06-04. 
  • An Account of the Construction of the Britannia and Conway Tubular Bridges. London: John Weale. 1849. Retrieved 2009-06-04. 
  • Two Lectures: The Construction of Boilers, and on Boiler Explosions, with the means of prevention. 1851. 
  • On Tubular Girder Bridges. London: W. Clowes and Sons. 1851. Retrieved 2009-06-04. 
  • On the Application of Cast and Wrought Iron to Building Purposes (1st ed.). London: John Weale. 1854. Retrieved 2009-06-04. 
  • Useful Information for Engineers. London: Longmans. 1856. 
  • Iron, Its History, Properties, and Processes of Manufacture. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black. 1861. Retrieved 2009-06-04. 
  • Treatise on Mills and Millwork, Part I. London: Longmans, Green and Company. 1863. Retrieved 2009-06-04. 
  • Treatise on Mills and Millwork, Part II. London: Longmans, Green and Company. 1871. Retrieved 2009-06-04. 
  • Experiments to determine the effect of impact, vibratory action, and long continued changes of load on wrought iron girders, (1864) Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, London vol. 154, p311
  • Treatise on Iron Ship Building: Its History and Progress (1st ed.). London: Longmans, Green and Co. 1865. Retrieved 2009-06-04. 
  • The Principles of Mechanism and Machinery of Transmission. Philadelphia: Henry Carey Baird. 1871. Retrieved 2009-06-04. 
  • The Life of Sir William Fairbairn, Bart., (ed. W. Pole, 1877)


  1. ^ Young, C.F.T. (1867). "Chapter 3". The Fouling and Corrosion of Iron Ships: Their Causes and Means of Prevention, with Mode of Application to the Existing Iron-Clads. Chronology of Iron Ships. London: London Drawing Assoc. 
  2. ^ Marshall, John (1978). A biographical dictionary of railway engineers. Newton Abbot: David & Charles. 
  3. ^ Channing, John; Ridley, John (2003). Safety at work. Boston, Massachusetts: Butterworth Heinemann. p. 793.  
  4. ^ Lancaster, John (2000). Engineering Catastrophes: Causes and Effects of Major Accidents (2 ed.). Cambridge, England: Woodhead. p. 68.  
  5. ^ "Steam boiler examinations" (PDF).  
  6. ^ Complete list of the members and officers of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. 1896. p. 9. Retrieved 2011-03-07. 
  7. ^ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 2011-11-25. 
Baronetage of the United Kingdom
New creation Baronet
(of Ardwick)

Succeeded by
Thomas Fairbairn
Professional and academic associations
Preceded by
Robert Stephenson
President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers
Succeeded by
Joseph Whitworth
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