Industrial Biography
Samuel Smiles

Part 7 out of 7

Mr. Fairbairn himself fully recognised the value of the experiments,
and proceeded to construct an iron vessel at his works at Manchester,
in 1831, which went to sea the same year. Its success was such as to
induce him to begin iron shipbuilding on a large scale, at the same
time as the Messrs. Laird did at Birkenhead; and in 1835, Mr.
Fairbairn established extensive works at Millwall, on the
Thames,--afterwards occupied by Mr. Scott Russell, in whose yard the
"Great Eastern" steamship was erected,-- where in the course of some
fourteen years he built upwards of a hundred and twenty iron ships,
some of them above 2000 tons burden. It was in fact the first great
iron shipbuilding yard in Britain, and led the way in a branch of
business which has since become of first-rate magnitude and
importance. Mr. Fairbairn was a most laborious experimenter in iron,
and investigated in great detail the subject of its strength, the
value of different kinds of riveted joints compared with the solid
plate, and the distribution of the material throughout the structure,
as well as the form of the vessel itself. It would indeed be
difficult to over-estimate the value of his investigations on these
points in the earlier stages of this now highly important branch of
the national industry.

To facilitate the manufacture of his iron-sided ships, Mr. Fairbairn,
about the year 1839, invented a machine for riveting boiler plates by
steam-power. The usual method by which this process had before been
executed was by hand-hammers, worked by men placed at each side of
the plate to be riveted, acting simultaneously on both sides of the
bolt. But this process was tedious and expensive, as well as clumsy
and imperfect; and some more rapid and precise method of fixing the
plates firmly together was urgently wanted. Mr. Fairbairn's machine
completely supplied the want. By its means the rivet was driven into
its place, and firmly fastened there by a couple of strokes of a
hammer impelled by steam. Aided by the Jacquard punching-machine of
Roberts, the riveting of plates of the largest size has thus become
one of the simplest operations in iron-manufacturing.

The thorough knowledge which Mr. Fairbairn possessed of the strength
of wrought-iron in the form of the hollow beam (which a wrought-iron
ship really is) naturally led to his being consulted by the late
Robert Stephenson as to the structures by means of which it was
proposed to span the estuary of the Conway and the Straits of Menai;
and the result was the Conway and Britannia Tubular Bridges, the
history of which we have fully described elsewhere.*
Lives of the Engineers, vol. iii. 416-40. See also An Account of the
Construction of the Britannia and Conway Tubular Bridges. By William
Fairbairn, C.E. 1849.
There is no reason to doubt that by far the largest share of the
merit of working out the practical details of those structures, and
thus realizing Robert Stephenson's magnificent idea of the tubular
bridge, belongs to Mr. Fairbairn.

In all matters connected with the qualities and strength of iron, he
came to be regarded as a first-rate authority, and his advice was
often sought and highly valued. The elaborate experiments instituted
by him as to the strength of iron of all kinds have formed the
subject of various papers which he has read before the British
Association, the Royal Society, and the Literary and Philosophical
Society of Manchester. His practical inquries as to the strength of
boilers have led to his being frequently called upon to investigate
the causes of boiler explosions, on which subject he has published
many elaborate reports. The study of this subject led him to
elucidate the law according to which the density of steam varies
throughout an extensive range of pressures and atmospheres,--in
singular confirmation of what had before been provisionally
calculated from the mechanical theory of heat. His discovery of the
true method of preventing the tendency of tubes to collapse, by
dividing the flues of long boilers into short lengths by means of
stiffening rings, arising out of the same investigation, was one of
the valuable results of his minute study of the subject; and is
calculated to be of essential value in the manufacturing districts by
diminishing the chances of boiler explosions, and saving the
lamentable loss of life which has during the last twenty years been
occasioned by the malconstruction of boilers. Among Mr. Fairbairn's
most recent, inquiries are those conducted by him at the instance of
the British Government relative to the construction of iron-plated
ships, his report of which has not yet been made public, most
probably for weighty political reasons.

We might also refer to the practical improvements which Mr. Fairbairn
has been instrumental in introducing in the construction of buildings
of various kinds by the use of iron. He has himself erected numerous
iron structures, and pointed out the road which other manufacturers
have readily followed. "I am one of those," said he, in his 'Lecture
on the Progress of Engineering,' "who have great faith in iron walls
and iron beams; and although I have both spoken and written much on
the subject, I cannot too forcibly recommend it to public attention.
It is now twenty years since I constructed an iron house, with the
machinery of a corn-mill, for Halil Pasha, then Seraskier of the
Turkish army at Constantinople. I believe it was the first iron house
built in this country; and it was constructed at the works at
Millwall, London, in 1839."*
Useful Information for Engineers, 2nd series, 225. The mere list of
Mr. Fairbairn's writings would occupy considerable space; for,
notwithstanding his great labours as an engineer, he has also been an
industrious writer. His papers on Iron, read at different times
before the British Association, the Royal Society, and the Literary
and Philosophical Institution of Manchester, are of great value. The
treatise on "Iron" in the Encyclopaedia Britannica is from his pen,
and he has contributed a highly interesting paper to Dr. Scoffern's
Useful Metals and their Alloys on the Application of Iron to the
purposes of Ordnance, Machinery, Bridges, and House and Ship
Building. Another valuable but less-known contribution to Iron
literature is his Report on Machinery in General, published in the
Reports on the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1855. The experiments
conducted by Mr. Fairbairn for the purpose of proving the excellent
properties of iron for shipbuilding--the account of which was
published in the Trans actions of the Royal Society eventually led to
his further experiments to determine the strength and form of the
Britannia and Conway Tubular Bridges, plate-girders, and other
constructions, the result of which was to establish quite a new era
in the history of bridge as well as ship building.

Since then iron structures of all kinds have been erected: iron
lighthouses, iron-and-crystal palaces, iron churches, and iron
bridges. Iron roads have long been worked by iron locomotives; and
before many years have passed a telegraph of iron wire will probably
be found circling the globe. We now use iron roofs, iron bedsteads,
iron ropes, and iron pavement; and even the famous "wooden walls of
England" are rapidly becoming reconstructed of iron. In short, we are
in the midst of what Mr. Worsaae has characterized as the Age of

At the celebration of the opening of the North Wales Railway at
Bangor, almost within sight of his iron bridge across the Straits of
Menai, Robert Stephenson said, "We are daily producing from the
bowels of the earth a raw material, in its crude state apparently of
no worth, but which, when converted into a locomotive engine, flies
over bridges of the same material, with a speed exceeding that of the
bird, advancing wealth and comfort throughout the country. Such are
the powers of that all-civilizing instrument, Iron."

Iron indeed plays a highly important part in modem civilization. Out
of it are formed alike the sword and the ploughshare, the cannon and
the printing-press; and while civilization continues partial and
half-developed, as it still is, our liberties and our industry must
necessarily in a great measure depend for their protection upon the
excellence of our weapons of war as well as on the superiority of our
instruments of peace. Hence the skill and ingenuity displayed in the
invention of rifled guns and artillery, and iron-sided ships and
batteries, the fabrication of which would be impossible but for the
extraordinary development of the iron-manufacture, and the marvellous
power and precision of our tool-making machines, as described in
preceding chapters.

"Our strength, wealth, and commerce," said Mr. Cobden in the course
of a recent debate in the House of Commons, "grow out of the skilled
labour of the men working in metals. They are at the foundation of
our manufacturing greatness; and in case you were attacked, they
would at once be available, with their hard hands and skilled brains,
to manufacture your muskets and your cannon, your shot and your
shell. What has given us our Armstrongs, Whitworths, and Fairbairns,
but the free industry of this country? If you can build three times
more steam-engines than any other country, and have threefold the
force of mechanics, to whom and to what do you owe that, but to the
men who have trained them, and to those principles of commerce out of
which the wealth of the country has grown? We who have some hand in
doing that, are not ignorant that we have been and are increasing the
strength of the country in proportion as we are raising up skilled
House of Commons Debate, 7th July, 1862.

The reader who has followed us up to this point will have observed
that handicraft labour was the first stage of the development of
human power, and that machinery has been its last and highest. The
uncivilized man began with a stone for a hammer, and a splinter of
flint for a chisel, each stage of his progress being marked by an
improvement in his tools. Every machine calculated to save labour or
increase production was a substantial addition to his power over the
material resources of nature, enabling him to subjugate them more
effectually to his wants and uses; and every extension of machinery
has served to introduce new classes of the population to the
enjoyment of its benefits. In early times the products of skilled
industry were for the most part luxuries intended for the few,
whereas now the most exquisite tools and engines are employed in
producing articles of ordinary consumption for the great mass of the
community. Machines with millions of fingers work for millions of
purchasers--for the poor as well as the rich; and while the machinery
thus used enriches its owners, it no less enriches the public with
its products.

Much of the progress to which we have adverted has been the result of
the skill and industry of our own time. "Indeed," says Mr. Fairbairn,
"the mechanical operations of the present day could not have been
accomplished at any cost thirty years ago; and what was then
considered impossible is now performed with an exactitude that never
fails to accomplish the end in view." For this we are mainly indebted
to the almost creative power of modern machine-tools, and the
facilities which they present for the production and reproduction of
other machines. We also owe much to the mechanical agencies employed
to drive them. Early inventors yoked wind and water to sails and
wheels, and made them work machinery of various kinds; but modern
inventors have availed themselves of the far more swift and powerful,
yet docile force of steam, which has now laid upon it the heaviest
share of the burden of toil, and indeed become the universal drudge.
Coal, water, and a little oil, are all that the steam-engine, with
its bowels of iron and heart of fire, needs to enable it to go on
working night and day, without rest or sleep. Yoked to machinery of
almost infinite variety, the results of vast ingenuity and labour,
the Steam-engine pumps water, drives spindles, thrashes corn, prints
books, hammers iron, ploughs land, saws timber, drives piles, impels
ships, works railways, excavates docks; and, in a word, asserts an
almost unbounded supremacy over the materials which enter into the
daily use of mankind, for clothing, for labour, for defence, for
household purposes, for locomotion, for food, or for instruction.


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