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William Fairbairn

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Sir William Fairbairn

Sir William Fairbairn (February 19, 1789 - August 18, 1874) was a Scottish engineer.

Born Kelso to a local farmer, Fairbairn showed an early mechanical aptitude and served as an apprentice mill-wright in Newcastle upon Tyne where he befriended the young George Stephenson. He moved to Manchester in 1813 to work for Adam Parkinson and Thomas Hewes. In 1817, he launched his mill-machinery business with James Lillie.

Fairbairn was a life-long learner and joined the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1830. In the early years of the following decade, he and Eaton Hodgkinson conducted a search for an optimal cross-section for iron-beams. Thus, in the 1840s, when Robert Stephenson, the son of his youthful friend George, conceived the novel tubular design for the Britannia Bridge, connecting Anglesey to mainland Britain, he retained both Fairbairn and Hodgkinson as consultants. A similar design was used at Conway but ultimately proved too costly a concept for widespread use.

When the cotton industry fell into recession, Fairbairn diversified into the manufacture of boilers for locomotives and into shipbuilding. Fairbairn drew on his experience with the Britannia and Conway tubular bridges to pioneer the construction of iron-hulled ships. Perceiving a ship as a floating tubular beam, he criticised existing design standards dictated by Lloyds of London and proved his ideas at his Millwall shipyard with the Lord Dundas.

Faibairn developed the Lancashire boiler in 1844. In 1861, at the request of the UK Parliament and again parallelling work by Hodgkinson, 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.

Honours

Works

  • An Account of the Construction of the Britannia and Conway Tubular Bridges, (1849)
  • 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 Shipbuilding, (1865)
  • The Life of Sir William Fairbairn, Bart., (ed. W. Pole, 1877)

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