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Robert Briggs (1822-1882)

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Robert Briggs (1822-1882)

of the Franklin Institute of USA


1883 Obituary [1]

ROBERT BRIGGS was born on 18th June 1822, in Boston, Massachusetts, and was educated in the public schools of that city.

At the age of seventeen he entered the office of Captain Alexander Paris, a civil engineer and architect of Boston and Charlestown. Hero he remained for several years, partly in the capacity of pupil and partly in that of assistant, his experience including nearly all of the more important branches of work which are usually comprehended in the duties of both the civil and the mechanical engineer.

Leaving Boston in 1844, Mr. Briggs followed other pursuits for a time; but in 1847 he returned there, and after a few months' work under Mr. Charles Hastings, C.E., in laying out a line of railway in Massachusetts, he accepted a position as "constructing engineer" to the Glendon Rolling Mill, a large and important establishment then being built at East Boston.

Upon the completion of that work ho opened an office of his own in Boston as architect and engineer, an experiment which met with but small success. In August 1848 he entered the service of Walworth and Nason, of Boston, and assumed the charge of the building of their tube works, and the superintendence of the same when completed.

In the latter part of 1852 he accepted the position of superintending engineer of the firm of Bird and Weld (now the Phoenix Works) of Trenton, New Jersey, where be was employed in the construction of machinery for the manufacture of rubber and other miscellaneous purposes.

Leaving here in November 1853, he was for some time engaged as a manager of rolling mills; but in 1855 be accepted an appointment as assistant engineer under Captain (now General) M. C. Meigs. In this capacity he was employed at first in the building of the Washington Aqueduct, and subsequently in the erection of the ironwork forming the dome of the Capitol at Washington, and in the heating and ventilation of the halls of Congress. During his connection with these important works, he conducted an original investigation into the strength and proportions of cast-iron pipes; and in connection with the heating and ventilation of this building, made the elaborate and original researches which were subsequently embodied in a paper read in 1870 before the Institution of Civil Engineers, on "The Conditions and the Limits which govern the proportions of Rotary Fans" (Proceedings, vol. xxx., p. 276).

In 1858 he became, for one year, a partner in the firm of Nason Dodge and Briggs, of New York. The senior partner in this firm, Mr. Joseph Nason, was a pioneer in the art of heating buildings by steam; and in this new association Mr. Briggs enlarged the experience he had already gained while in the employ of Walworth and Nason, as a designer and constructor of appliances for heating by steam, including the manufacture of all kinds of brass and iron fittings for the same.

Coming to Philadelphia in 1860, he became superintendent and engineer of the Pascal Iron Works of Morris Tasker and Co. These works, under his management, became the largest American producers of wrought-iron pipes and boiler flues, of iron and brass fittings and valves, of machinery for cutting and screwing pipes, of appliances for steam and hot-water heating, and of apparatus for gas works.

In 1862-63 he designed and erected large additional buildings for the Pascal Works, including a new pipe-mill and machine-shop, which proved convenient and economical, and far better than any similar plant previously erected.

About this time he also designed and constructed for Galveston, Texas, a flat-top gas-holder, built without interior trussing. It is believed that this method was original with Mr. Briggs. Among the improvements introduced by him in the manufacture of tools for pipe-fittings, was the application of the Blanchard lathe to tap-making, by which the "backing-off" of taps was done by machinery, instead of by the laborious hand-process previously in use.

In January 1866 Mr. Briggs visited England on behalf of the Pascal Iron Works, chiefly to examine the Siemens Regenerative Furnace, with a view to applying it for heating plates in tube-making. At the conclusion of his connection with the Pascal Iron Works, in November 1869, he again visited England, where he remained nearly a year, enlarging his acquaintance with English engineers, and continuing his study of their practice, particularly in connection with tube-making.

Returning to the United States be became, in January 1871, the superintendent and engineer of the Southwark Foundry, then belonging to Mr. Henry G. Morris. During this connection he designed and built a pumping engine for Lowell, Massachusetts, which may be regarded as the largest single work of his life. It was a compound rotative engine of the "Simpson" type, with a capacity of five million gallons per twenty-four hours under a head of 160 feet. When completed it gave a duty of over one hundred millions.

He also designed and constructed a large variety of heavy work, including sugar mills and sugar-refining machinery, gas apparatus, blast-furnace engines and furnaces, stationary engines, nitrate of soda apparatus, &c. His engagement lasted until the closing of the works in 1875, when he again made a short visit to England.

In 1876 he became the editor of the Journal of the Franklin Institute, which position he filled for several years.

In 1878 he opened an office in Philadelphia as consulting engineer; and in 1880 he became consulting assistant to Colonel Ludlow, United States engineer of river and harbour improvements in the vicinity of Philadelphia. The terms of his engagement permitted him to retain a portion of his office practice, and he continued, until his final illness, to give more or less attention to miscellaneous engineering affairs, including particularly the heating and ventilating of large buildings. One of his papers, read before the American Society of Civil Engineers, of which he was a Member, on the "Ventilation of Halls of Audience," attracted much attention. In it he urged that American engineers should discard European practice in this branch, as unsuited to the conditions both of climate and physical constitution of the population; and he referred to the well-authenticated fact that the modern American requires a temperature of not less than 70' F. for comfort, although Englishmen are comfortable in a room at 60°.

In 1881 he presented to the Institution of Civil Engineers an elaborate paper on "American practice in Warming Buildings by Steam " (Proceedings 1882, p. 95). Early in 1882, after his return from a last brief visit to England, indications of paralysis developed themselves. In the spring he left Philadelphia, and went to his mother's home in Dedham, Massachusetts, where he died on 24th July 1882, having just completed his sixtieth year.

Mr. Briggs' contributions to the literature of engineering were very numerous and valuable. Among them may be mentioned, is addition to the papers above referred to, his article on the "Transmission of Force by Belts and Pulleys," based on the experiments of Mr. Henry R. Towne, usually known as "Briggs' and Towne's experiments," which have been adopted in the textbooks both of America and of England; a report on the "Ventilation of the House of Representatives, Washington;" a paper on the "Circulation of Water in Steam Boilers," &c.

He became a Member of the Institution in 1882.


1883 Obituary [2]

. . . At the age of seventeen he entered the office of Captain Alex. Parris, a civil engineer and architect of Boston and Charlestown, N.Y., . . . In 1854-55 he was manager of the well-known Renssellaer Mill at Troy, N.Y.

... In November 1869, he presented to the Society a Paper “On the Conditions and the Limits which govern the Proportions of Rotary Fans,” which was read to the meeting on the 17th of the following May. This essay was a philosophical inquiry into the action of ‘ these machines, of great interest and value, not only in regard to the ventilating-fan, but also of its analogue the turbine. The Paper was awarded a Watt medal and a Telford premium. On the 4th of February, 1879, he was elected a Member of the Institution, and about this time joined the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Mr. Briggs’ wide experience eminently fitted him for the position of engineer-editor of the ‘ Journal of the Franklin Institute,’ which he filled for several years from 1875. He subsequently established himself in Philadelphia as a consulting engineer, devoting himself specially to the design of heavy machinery and ironwork; the application of heat in the arts, and the design of works for gas and water supply. But he achieved only moderate success, as that sort of private practice is not much in vogue in America....

... In 1880 he became consulting assistant to the United States Chief of Engineers, his duties being mainly connected with the maintenance of the rivers and harbours, a department of engineering chiefly under government control. When no longer officially connected with the Franklin Institute, he continued to enrich its 'Journal' with contributions from his facile pen, and his other literary work was plentiful...


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