Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

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Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 163,372 pages of information and 245,906 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Life of Sir William Fairbairn by William Pole: Chapter XV

From Graces Guide

Note: This is a sub-section of Life of Sir William Fairbairn by William Pole


THE publication of Mr. Fairbairn's work on the great bridges formed a culminating point in his life; and the controversies which took place on the subject, although they caused him much annoyance at the time, were not without advantage to him, inasmuch as they brought his name more prominently before the world, and called more general attention, not only to the part he had taken in the works in question, but to his distinguished position generally as a mechanical engineer.

The appreciation of his merits was manifested immediately by some honours being paid him of very high character.

The first of these was his admission into the Royal Society of London. This society elects fifteen members every year, who are selected carefully by the council, out of a large number of candidates, on account of eminent scientific merit; and consequently the fellowship of the society is a high distinction.

The proposal appears to have originated with the late Mr. George Rennie, who, writing to Mr. Fairbairn on December 4, 1849, said:-

Few men would have a better chance, as your name and reputation are too well known to the world at large to permit of any doubt of your success. I will desire the assistant secretary to send you a printed form to be filled up, and to be sent round to your friends for signature, in which I will assist, although I am precluded from signing it myself.

The form, or certificate, as it is called, was ultimately filled up as follows

William Fairbairn, Engineer, Manchester, author of numerous papers which have been from time to time published in the Transactions of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, in the Memoirs of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester, and the Transactions of Institution of Civil Engineers. These papers embrace an enquiry into the comparative strength of hot and cold blast iron, an extended investigation of the strength and other properties of all the irons of Great Britain, and of the Samakoff Turkish iron; an Essay on the Combustion of Fuel, on the most Economical Method of Raising Water from Mines, &c. The author also of a work descriptive of the Conway and Britannia Tubular Bridges, and containing also an experimental research to determine the law which governs the strengths, &c., of Wrought- Iron Tubular Bridges and Girders;—being desirous of admission into the Royal Society of London, we, the undersigned, propose and recommend him as deserving that honour, and as likely to become a useful and valuable member.—Dated this 31st day of January, 1850.

It was signed by the following names, among which many will be recognised as of great scientific eminence:-

Henry Holland, Henry Moseley, John Rennie, J. Walker, W. Cubitt, Joshua Field, James Booth, F. Beaufort, W. C. Mylne, G. R. Porter, Robert Willis,- John Barrow, Charles Babbage, Andrew Ure, William Brockedon.

The council included Mr. Fairbairn's name in the selected list of candidates; and he was elected into the Society, June 6, 1850.

Within a year after Mr. Fairbairn's election into the Royal Society another honour was paid him, which was still more distinguished, on account of the very few of his countrymen on whom it has been bestowed—that of admission into the National Institute of France. As the nature and constitution of this body are not generally known in this country, a few explanatory words may be in place here.

The Institute of France was founded by the Republic on the 5 Fructidor (August 22), 1795, its declared object being:—

I°. A perfectionner les sciences et les arts par des recherches non interrompues, par la publication des decouvertes, par la correspondance avec les societes savantes et etrangêres. 2°. A suivre, conformement aux lois et arrétes du Directoire executif, les travaux scientifiques et litteraires qui auront pour objet l'utilite generale et la gloire de la Republique.

It was confirmed by Bonaparte some years later; and again by Louis XVIII. in 1816, and by Louis Philippe in 1832.

The body termed l'Institut de France ' comprises five 'Academies,' the constitution of which is as follows:—


This consists of forty members chosen from the most eminent literary and public men of the kingdom.'

This body is older than the Institute generally, having been 'employed in settling the French language and editing the celebrated dictionary' before Johnson's time. Ganick's complimentary epigram on Johnson's Dictionary says, alluding to them:-

And Johnson, well arm'd like a hero of yore,

Hen beet forty French. and will beat forty more !


This consists of men eminent in antiquarian and polite literature, and the members are:—

Academiciens 40

Academiciens libres 10

Associes &rangers 8

Correspondants, French 20

Foreigners 30


This is divided into eleven sections, and the numbers of members of different grades are:—


Geometry 6


Astronomy 6

Geography and Navigation 3

General Physics 6

Chemistry 6

Mineralogy 6

Botany 6

Rural Economy 6

Anatomy and Zoology 6

Medicine and Surgery 6

Arademiciens lebres 10

Amides Strangers 8


Geometry 6

Mechanics 6

Astronomy 16

Geography and Navigation

General Physics 9

Chemistry 9

Mineralogy 8

Botany 10

Rural Economy 10

Anatomy and Zoology 10

Medicine and Surgery 8

When a vacancy occurs by the death of any academician, a list of at least three names is drawn up and presented to the Institute by the Academy in which the vacancy arises, and the choice between them is made by the general body. The corresponding members in each Academy are elected by that Academy, on the presentation of a list by the section in which the vacancy occurs.

In the middle of the year 1851, a vacancy occurred among the corresponding members of the Mechanical Section of the Academy of Sciences by the death of Sir Mark Isambard Brunel. Mr. Fairhairn had previously made the acquaintance of some influential members of the Institute, among whom were Generals Poncelet and Morin, Baron Dupin, and M. Arago; and on the encouragement of these and other friends, he decided to offer himself as a candidate. He went to Paris in September, and shortly afterwards sent over full particulars of his claims, accompanied with the following letter to General Poncelet

Manchester: October 1, 1831.

Dear General Poncelet,—The interest you have taken in wishing me to become a candidate for admission as a corresponding member of the Institute of France, induces me to lay before you a brief statement of facts in connection with my past and present history. I would not have ventured to aspire to the dignity but for the encouragement I received from yourself and M. Arago; nor is it my intention even now to present myself before the members of the Academy unless well supported by friends who may consider me worthy of such a distinction. I have no doubt there will be found many claimants of higher standing and much greater learning than myself, entitled to such an honour, but I should deem myself ungrateful, after the encouragement I have received, if I did not lay before the Academy a list of my qualifications, with copies of such as I have in my possession, which I now forward for acceptance by that distinguished body.

I have further drawn up for your guidance a short account of my early history, and a brief statement of my endeavours to be useful in my professional capacity, and the advancement of practical science. In these attempts I have laboured under an imperfect education, and many other disadvantages, which nothing but an indomitable perseverance could overcome. How far I have been successful I must leave my works to determine; and all I have now to offer is (in case of my election) the same determined spirit to be useful to the Institute of France, as I humbly trust I have been to the Institutions I have been connected with in this country.

Yours faithfully and obliged,


The Academy named a commission of three members to investigate Mr. Fairbairn's claims; and, the result of this being satisfactory, an official letter was addressed to him as follows:—

Paris, le 13 Novembre, 1851.

Mon cher Monsieur,—II y a en ce moment une vacance de Membre Correspondant de la Section de Mecanique a l'Academie des Sciences a. Paris.

Les grands et beaux travaux que vous avez diriges et executes vous mettent au nombre des personnel cur lesqnelles doit se porter la pens& de l'Institut. .Fe vous prie done de me faire savoir si votre intention est de vous porter comme candidat en titre de Membre Correspondant de l'Academie des Sciences (Section de Mecanique), et clans le cas de l'affirmative, de m'envoyer une note des principaux travaux sur lesquels s'appitierait votre candidature.

Recevez, Monsieur, l'expression de la haute consideration de votre devoue serviteur,

Le Colonel d'Artillerie, Membre de l'Institut, Adminis. trateur du Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers,

A. Moutx,

Monsieur Wu. Frannemr,

This letter was answered in due course, but the stirring political events of the end of the year so interrupted the even course of routine business that nothing was done towards the elections for some months. Many vacancies had occurred, and the French members had to be elected before the claims of the Corresponding members could be entertained. Mr. Fairbairn, however, continued to receive strong expressions of support from his distinguished friends, as is shown in the following interesting letter from one of the greatest mechanics of the age:—

Paris, Is 4 Fevrier, 1852.

Mon cher et tres estime Collegue,—Mon long silence n'artraits aucune excuse legitime, sans les evenements politiques qui sont venus nous surprendre. D'une autre part, lors de vos premieres communications et de l'envoi de vos nombreux titres aux suffrages de 'Institut, la plupart de mes collegues de la section de mecanique etaient absente de Paris, et it a fallu attendre leur retour pour les mettre au courant de notre projet d'election, sans trop en brusquer he denouement et leur faire penser que notre parti etait pris et arréte a l'avance. Aujourd'hui, malgre les evenements, les choses sont beaucoup plus avancees, et j'ai tout bien de croire que votre nom sera porte en tete de la liste des candidates de la section de mecanique.

A l'egard de vos titres et des divers travaux de votre laborieuse carriere, ils seront, vous pouvez en etre sur, apprecies a leur juste valeur. Pour moi, je les trouve, en tous points, dignes des suffrages de l'Academie des Sciences, soit au point de true pratique, soit h celui de l'invention et des recherches experimentales entreprises en vire d'eclairer la science de construction. Vos immenses travaux comme ingenieur et constructeur, votre ingenieuse machine a river, et la maniere dont vous avez su, l'un des premiers, assouplir la Cele et en propager l'emploi dans l'industrie manufacturiere, et les grandes constructions nautiques, sont dignes de la plus haute estime. Enfin je suis tout a fait de l'avis du Dr. Tire quant aux eloges qu'il donne a votre systême d'etablissement des arbres de commande dans les filatures, Szc.

Votre bet ouvrage sur les pants tubulaires ne laisse rien desirer a cet egard [vos droits comme inventeur et perfection neur]; j'en dirai autant de votre machine A, river, et de vos constructions de roues hydrauliques, oir chacun appreciera les belles dispositions adoptees; neanmoins pour les hommes tels que moi alles peu au courant du propres que les constructions de ce genre ont recu en Angleterre, it serait utile de connaitre la filiere historique des idees. Au sujet de vos grander et belles roues A, augets courbes ventiles a systeme de suspension, je trouve des renseignements precieux dans le memoire que M. Ferey a Bien voulu me remettre de votre part, et dont je vous adresse mes bien sinceres remerciments. Vos systemes de construction sont sans contredit superieurs h, ceux qui avaient, jusque-la., ete employes, et je les crois tres propres a rendre les services auxquels it sont destines; cependant je ne pense que l'evacuation de l'air en dehors les augets soit le seul obstacle oppose a l'introduction de l'eau dans les augets, et que par consequent le moyen de ventilation si simple que vous employez soit le Bernier mot de la question. D'apres des etudes ties anciennes que j'ai faites de cette question, le rapport des vitesses de la roue et de la veine d'eau, les angles des augets et de cette veine avec la circonference exterieure de la roue doivent exercer aussi une tres grande influence, et c'est dans cette vue que j'ai imagine des dispositions nouvelles, pour les roues en dessus et de cote, qui different beaucoup de tout ce que ion avait imagine jusqul present, outre que j'ai eu aussi en vue une acceleration de itesse.


II. Poncelet added a lucid description of his improvements in water-wheels, illustrating it with sketches. These improvements have now long been known, and have become highly appreciated among engineers, for their elegant scientific merit and their practical utility; but the description is too technical for insertion here.

A little later, another great mechanic wrote:—

Paris, Is 14 Mars, 1852.

Mon cher Fairbairn,—J'ai tarde bien longtemps a vous ecrire au sujet de l'affaire qui vous interesse ici, parce que je voulais pouvoir vous en donner quelques nouvelles certaines. Apres des pourparlers assez longs, et difficiles, nous sommes parvenus, MM. Dupin, Poncelet et moi, a faire decider par la section de mecanique que vous seriez presente pour etre nomme membre correspondant de l'Institut avec MM Babbage, Hodgkinson et Willis; mais que la section declarerait quo dans l'etat actuel des besoins de la science e]le demande que vous soyez choisi. M. Dupin se charge de faire le rapport.

Votre bien affectionne,

M. Momx.

The final proceedings are detailed in the following letters, which are given verbatim, as they were written in English by the great man whose signature they bear.

Paris, May 6, 1852.

Dear Sir,--Monday last I had the honour and pleasure to read my report, in the name of Mechanics' Section of the Institute of France, to propose the candidates for the place of correspondent, vacant by the death of Sir M. I. Brunel.

I have been happy enough to obtain that your name should be the first of all candidates.

I can say you that I have been quite enthusiastic with the study of your numerous and so meritorious works and inventions; the picture of them did strike the whole Academy with admiration.

I hope next week to be able to write again to you a letter announcing your election as our worthy Correspondent, and nobody will be more happy for that result than I shall be.

I am, Sir,

Your most devoted servant,


Paris, May 11, 1852.

Dear Sir,—I rejoice very much in giving to you notice that you have been elected to-day Correspondant of the National Institute of France, and your Majority has been enormous, thirty- seven against four.

I am, dear sir,

Your most devoted colleague and friend,


The official announcement of the election was as follows;—

Institut de France, Acad6mie des Sciences, Paris, is 11 Mai, 1852.

Le Secretaire perpetuel de l'Academie pour les Sciences Mat hematiques.

Monsieur,—J'ai l'honneur de vous adresser l'extrait ci-joint du Procês-verbal de la séance du Mardi 11 Mai, dans laquelle l'Acadêmie vient de vous nommer l'un de ses Correspondants pour la Section de Mecanique, en remplacement de feu Mr. Brunel.

En vous offrant ce titre comme un ternoignage de son estime, l'Academie vous invite, Monsieur, 5, lui faire part du fruit de vos recherches dans les sciences dont elle s'occupe.

Veuillez, Monsieur, agrêer Passurance de ma consideration la plus distinguee.



L'Academie procede par la voie du scrutin a l'election d'un Correspondant, appelê a remplir la place devenue vacante par suite du deces de Mr. Brunel.

be resultat du scrutin donne la rnajorite absolue des suffrages a Mr. Fairbairn a Manchester.

En consequence M. le President le proclame elu correspondant.'

Pour extrait conforme,


It may be interesting to add a list of the Englishmen who were members of the Institute about the time of Mr. Fairbairn's election:—

Academie des Inscriptions.

Horace Hayman Wilson, Oxford, Associd Etranger.

William Martin Leaks, Loudon, Correspondent.

Thos. Gaisford, Oxford, Thos. Wright, London, H. Rawlinson, Bagdad, B. II. Hodgson, Bengal,

Acadtmie des Menem.

Robert Brown, Associd hrenger. Capt. Scoresby, Correspondent.

Michael Faraday, „ Admiral Beaufort, „

In 1853 came a third distinction, one highly appreciated by those who know its nature, namely, his election without ballot, into the Athenxum Club.

This institution was founded in 1824, with an object- independent of all political or party views, namely, for the association of individuals known for their scientific or literary attainments, artists of eminence in any class of the fine arts, and noblemen and gentlemen distinguished as liberal patrons of science, literature, or the arts.' The number of members is 1,200; and although admission into the club has not been exclusively confined to persons who come within the avowed classification, it is

David Brewster, Associd Stranger

W. R. Hamilton, Correspondent.

H. Moseley,

W. Fairbairn,

Sir John Herschel,

General Brisbane,

G. D. Airy,

Capt. Smyth, )7

J. R. Hind,

Dr. Buckland, Correspondent. Sir Edward Parry, Correspondent Sir John Franklin, „

Sir James Clark Ross, „

Prof. Barlow,

Prof. Forbes, Edinburgh, Correspondent.

Prof. Wheatstone, Correspondent. Prof. Graham,

Prof. Conybears,

— Bracy Clark, Correspondent.

Sir R. Murchison, „ — Lindley, 17

Sir H. de la Beche, „ Richard Owen, „

— Wallich, Sir B. Brodie, ,,

Academie des Beaux Arts.

Chas. Cockerel!, Associd Stranger. T. L. Donaldson, Correspondent. Iloward Vyse,

Academie des Sciences Morales et Politiques.

Lord Brougham, Associd Stranger. II. Hallam, ,,

J. H. MacCulloch„

Sir W. Hamilton, Edinburgh, Correspondent.

Dr. Whateley, Dublin, Correspondent.

John Austin, London, Correspondant.

William Jacob, London, Correspondent.

Nassau Senior, London, Correspondent.

C. Babbage, London, Correspondent.

— Tooke, London, Correspondent. T. B. Macaulay, 3)

understood that the club is distinguished from all others by the predominance of members of scientific, literary, and artistic pursuits and tastes.

The ordinary mode of admission into the club is by the usual process of a ballot among the members generally; and so great is the demand for admission that there are at present above 1,500 candidates on the books waiting their turn for election, and a name has to stand about fifteen years on the list before it is called on.

The club has, however, a feature peculiar to itself, namely, the existence of a rule which requires the managing committee to keep up its special character by introducing into it, without being subject to the general ballot, nine members annually, chosen for their eminence in the objects for which the institution was founded. The following is the rule in question:—

It being essential to the maintenance of the Atheneum, in conformity with the principles upon which it was originally founded, that the annual introduction of a certain number of persons of distinguished eminence in science, literature, or the arts, or for public services, should be secured, a limited number of persons of such qualifications shall be elected by the committee. The number so elected shall not exceed nine in each year. The elections shall take place during the months of January, February, March, and April. The committee shall be specially summoned for the purpose, at least one week before the intended election; no election shall take place unless nine at least of the committee be actually present, and the whole of those present be unanimous in their election. Not more than one-third of the total number of persons to be thus admitted within the year shall be elected at any one meeting.

The club intrust this privilege to the committee, in the entire confidence that they will only elect persons who shall have attained to distinguished eminence in science; literature, or the arts, or for public services. The names of members so elected are to be immediately hung up in the public rooms.

In December, 1852, Mr. Fairbairn's name was entered in the candidates' book, being proposed by Mr. George Rennie, and seconded by Sir Roderick Murchison. On February 1, 1853, he was elected by the committee under the rule above cited. Among those similarly introduced in the same year were Thomas Carlyle, Baron Marochetti, and Sir Francis Grant, now P.R.A.

The following honours were paid him at subsequent periods of his life, on account of his scientific merits.

In November, 1855, he was elected member of the Academie Nationale Agricole, Manufacturiere et Commerciale, Paris;-

In December, 1856, a Corresponding Associate of the Royal Academy of Sciences, Turin;-

In November, 1860, an Honorary Member of the Prussian Verein fur BefOrderung des Gewerbfleisses,' Berlin;-

In July, 1861, an Honorary Member of the Royal United Service Institution, London;-

In November, 1861, a Corresponding Member of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Liverpool;-

In the same month, an Honorary Associate of the Institution of Naval Architects, London;-

In February, 1862, an Honorary Member of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society;-

In June, 1862, an Honorary Associate of the Society of Arts, Geneva;—and

In October, 1867, an Honorary Member of the Society of Engineers, London.

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