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William Cawthorne Unwin

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Im1935v159-p146.jpg
June 1898.
June 1898. Members of the International Niagara Falls Commission.
1915.
1933. William Cawthorne Unwin F.R.S from the painting by Harold Speed in the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Professor William Cawthorne Unwin (1838-1933), civil and mechanical engineer

1838 Born at Great Coggeshall, Essex, on 12 December 1838, the eldest son of William Jordan Unwin (1811–1877), pastor of the Congregational chapel at Woodbridge, Suffolk, and later principal of the Congregational theological college at Homerton, and his wife, Eliza Davey (d. 1872), daughter of J. Bailey Tailer, of Woodbridge.

He attended the City of London School (1848–54) and studied science for a year at New College, St John's Wood, London, passing the London matriculation examination in 1855 with honours in chemistry, and after study in the evenings he graduated with a BSc (London) in 1861.

In 1856, by personal introduction, Unwin obtained his first appointment as scientific assistant in Manchester to William Fairbairn.

In 1862 Unwin became works manager to Williamson Brothers

In 1866 he returned to Manchester as manager of the engine department of the Fairbairn Engineering Co

In 1884 the Central Institution of the City and Guilds of London was being completed and Unwin was appointed professor of civil and mechanical engineering. He served as dean of the college from 1885 to 1896 and again from 1902 to 1904. When the college was incorporated into London University in 1900 he became the first London University professor of engineering and was a leader in the advancement of engineering education and training.

At the same time Unwin took a prominent part from 1890 in the introduction and application of the internal combustion engine. His 1897 report on the diesel engine was an accurate forecast of its development.

1915 President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

1921 First recipient of the Kelvin Medal. [1]

1933 He died, unmarried, at his home, 7 Palace Gate Mansions, 29 Palace Gate, Kensington, London, on 17 March 1933.


1933 Obituary [2]

Professor WILLIAM CAWTHORNE UNWIN, LL.D., whose death occurred in his ninety-fifth year, on 17th March 1933, was one of the Institution's oldest and most eminent members. He joined the Institution in 1878, and was elected an Honorary Life Member in 1896. He served on the Council from 1909 to 1923, was elected a Vice-President in 1912, and filled the office of President from 1915 to 1917. After ceasing to serve on the Council as a Past-President in 1923 he continued to be a member of Institution research committees to the end of his life.

He was born at Coggeshall, Essex, in 1838 and was educated at the City of London School and at New College, St. John's Wood.

He served his pupilage with the late Sir William Fairbairn, Bart., M.I.Mech.E. (Past-President), from 1854 to 1861, and during this time graduated with the degree. of B.Sc. of the University of London by evening study. He became the manager of engineering works at the age of 23 and after six years of this experience he was appointed in 1872 an Instructor in the Royal School of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, South Kensington.

He was then appointed to the Chair of Hydraulic Engineering at the Royal Indian Engineering College, Cooper's Hill, and in 1884 became the first Professor of Civil and Mechanical Engineering at the City and Guilds of London Central Technical College, South Kensington. His work in these two Professorships, and especially in the development of the Central Technical College from its establishment in 1884 to the position it came to occupy long before his retirement in 1904, gained him recognition as one of the highest authorities on technical education, and the Institution is fortunate in having had the benefit of his knowledge and experience in the establishment and working of its own examination system. One of his most noteworthy activities was his work as Secretary of the International Commission on the Utilization of the Niagara Falls which was formed in 1890 under the chairmanship of Lord Kelvin. He was in this capacity concerned with lengthy investigations in different countries on hydraulic and electrical developments, and played an important part in the selection of the Niagara plant.

He also carried out investigations on the Diesel engine which had important bearings on the development of the heavy-oil engine in this country. The Institution again had the benefit of his advice in its research activities, more particularly as Chairman of the Hardness Tests Research Committee from its appointment in 1914 until the completion of its work in 1927, and as a member of the Alloys Research Committee throughout the whole of its work from 1889. In 1918 he delivered to the Institution the Thomas Hawksley Lecture on "The Mechanical Properties of Materials."

Dr. Unwin was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1886 and served on its Council in 1894. He was actively connected with the Institution of Civil Engineers, obtained many of its awards, and served as President in 1911. He was President of the Engineering Section of the British Association in 1892 and served for lengthy periods on the Senate of the University of London on the main Committee of the British Engineering Standards Association and, during the War, on the Metropolitan Munitions Committee Management Board.

In 1921 he was selected for the first award of the Kelvin Gold Medal. He was the author of numerous scientific publications, of which his books on "Elements of Machine Design," "Testing of Materials of Construction," and "Hydraulics," became standard works on their subjects.


1933 Obituary [3]

WILLIAM CAWTHORNE UNWIN, LL.D., F.R.S., Past-President and Honorary Member, was born at Coggeshall, Essex, on the 12th December, 1838. His father, the Rev. William Jordan Unwin, who was at that time minister of the Cotting Lane Congregational Chapel at Woodbridge, Suffolk, afterwards became head of Homerton College, the principal training establishment for the Nonconformist ministry. His mother was Eliza Davey, daughter of Mr. J. Bailey Tailer, of Woodbridge.

After receiving his early education at the City of London School, he studied for a year as a lay student at New College, St. John’s Wood, where the breadth of the course enabled him to follow his natural bent for mathematical and scientific subjects, at a time when the older English universities were closed to dissenters.

In 1856, at the age of 18, he was engaged by Sir William Fairbairn to assist him in the scientific and technical inquiries in which he was constantly engaged, in addition to the direction of his engineering works at Manchester. The caution which Sir William showed in making this appointment indicated some misgiving as to Unwin’s youth and inexperience ; but his doubts were soon dispelled, and the collaboration of the old and experienced practical engineer with the young and enthusiastic scientist was fruitful in results and the basis of a friendship which ended only with Sir William’s death in 1872. At first Unwin made abstracts of scientific and technical data and did routine work in the testing department, but he was soon called to more important matters. One of the earliest investigations on which he was engaged was an experimental study of the properties of steam. Another research dealt with the collapse of boiler flues, and its results formed the standard basis of design. Eighteen years later Unwin re-examined these results and evolved from them a practical method of calculation. Sir William Fairbairn was one of three civilian members of the Special Commission on Iron Plates set up by the Admiralty, and he made much use of Unwin’s services in connection with the experimental work and the writing of the reports of the Committee, published between 1861 and 1864.

Again, in connection with comparative tests of Fay and Newall brakes, made on the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway in 1859, Unwin was largely responsible for the details of the work, and he drafted the report for Fairbairn. Probably the most important of the investigations on which Unwin was thus engaged was the research on the effect of impact on wrought-iron girders carried out in 1860-62. "It is a striking endorsement of the instinctive practical foresight of Fairbairn and Unwin that they arrived so directly at the practical results which subsequently were verified by the very elaborate detailed researches of Wohler, commenced eleven years later." Unwin also rendered much assistance in revising and correcting editions of Fairbairn's "Treatise on Mills and Mill Work," and during this period he studied for the B.Sc. degree of the University of London, which he obtained in 1861.

In 1862 he was appointed Works Manager to Messrs. Williamson and Brothers, of Kendal, where he was engaged on the practical work of installing turbines and millwork. In 1864 he returned to Manchester as Manager of the Engine Department of the Fairbairn Engineering Company, but his natural leaning towards scientific work drew him from the commercial side of engineering, and after an unsuccessful application for the Professorship of Engineering at the Owens College, Manchester (to which Osborne Reynolds was appointed), he began his professorial career towards the end of 1868 as an instructor in marine engineering a t the Royal School of Marine Engineering and Naval Architecture, then established at South Kensington, where he remained until 1872.

In that year he was appointed Professor of Hydraulics and Mechanical Engineering in the Royal Indian Engineering College, at Coopers Hill, which had been established by the Government in the previous year for the purpose of training engineers for the public services in India. There he remained for 12 years, during which he carried out much original work, wrote numerous Papers, and produced a book on wrought-iron bridges and roofs, his well-known textbook on machine design, and the remarkable article on hydraulics, forming Part III of the article "Hydromechanics" in the ninth edition of the "Encyclopedia Britannica." Much of this article was afterwards embodied in the "Treatise on Hydraulics" which he published in 1907. Whilst at Coopers Hill, also, he made a detailed investigation of the tidal flow of the River Thames, and gave evidence before Lord Bramwell's Committee.

In 1884 the City and Guilds Institute completed its "Central Institution" at South Kensington, for higher education in engineering science and chemistry, and Unwin was offered and accepted the appointment of Professor of Civil and Mechanical Engineering.

His 20 years’ work in that position established his international reputation as a teacher and an engineering scientist, and was a very important influence in the development of the College and the attainment of the high reputation which it enjoys. He was Dean of the College from 1885 to 1896, and again from 1902 until he retired in 1904. On the incorporation of the Central Technical College in the University of London, in 1900, he was made the first London University Professor of Engineering ; and on his retirement from the College he was appointed by the Delegacy as its first Professor Emeritus. He was a member of the Senate of the University from 1899 to 1905, and again from 1911 to 1923, the last four years as one of the nominees of the Crown.

During the tenure of his professorship-and, indeed, for many years after his retirement from it-there were few important engineering undertakings in regard to which his advice and assistance were not sought by the responsible engineers. The Forth bridge, the Manchester ship-canal, the Periyar (Madras) power scheme, Birmingham water-supply, the Assuan dam, Coolgardie water-supply, the Central London railway, the Derwent Valley waterworks, London electricity supply,a nd the Mersey tunnel, were some of these which can only be mentioned here ; but his work in connection with the development of the water-power of Niagara calls for more detailed reference.

In 1890 Mr. E. D. Adams, the President of the Cataract Construction Company, recommended that competitive plans for the development of the l?alls should be invited and should be referred to an international commission. His advice was accepted, and the commission, consisting of Sir William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) as Chairman, Professor E. Mascart, Dr. Coleman Sellers, Lieut.-Col. T. Turrettini, and Professor Unwin was organized in London on the 21st June, 1890, in a room in Brown’s Hotel, Dover Street, W., where the fact is recorded in a tablet set up in 1926. Proposals for the development, transmission, and distribution of 125,000 HP. were invited ; twenty schemes were submitted and examined. Unwin prepared the report of the Committee, which was completed in April, 1891, but it was not until May, 1893, that the final decision in favour of electrical transmission and the use of alternating current was made.

The foregoing activities would of themselves have constituted a formidable burden to one who so conscientiously regarded his college duties and responsibilities as having first claim upon him ; but they were accompanied by a large output of valuable Papers on subjects investigated by him, which bear further witness to his immense industry, his versatility, and his thoroughness. These subjects embrace the petroleum engine, the friction of disks rotated in fluid, the hardening of cement mortars, the effect of straining and annealing on the yield-point of iron and steel, hardness testing, the influence of gauge length and section on the elongation of test bars, the transmission of power by compressed air, the properties of steam, the strength of alloys, etc.

In 1888 he published his textbook "The Testing of Materials." Among the numerous lectures delivered by him before other societies may be mentioned his Howard Lectures to the Royal Society of Arts on "The Development and Transmission of Power from Central Stations," which were republished in book form in 1894.

Much work was done by him on various Committees, even up to his ninetieth year. In 1895 he was Chairman of a Home Office committee on the safety of cylinders for compressed gases, and in 1896 he was nominated by The Institution to serve on a Departmental Committee of the Board of Trade on the loss of strength in steel rails under prolonged use. He was Secretary of a British Association Committee on the calibration of instruments used in engineering laboratories, and a member, with Dr. G. F. Deacon and Mr. John Carruthers, MM. Inst. C.E., of a commission appointed by the State of Western Australia to inquire into the water-supply of the Coolgardie gold-fields.

He served on the Main Committee of the Engineering Standards Committee (British Standards Institution) from its establishment, and carried out much of the early work involved in the standardization of rolled steel sections. He was Vice-chairman of the Committee on reinforced concrete appointed by the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1905 ; and served simultaneously on a committee appointed by the India Office to report on designs for the siphons of the Lower Bari Doab canal.

Notwithstanding his age, he was active during the war on numerous committees dealing with munitions. After the war he was a member of a Foreign Office committee on certain matters relating to public works in Egypt. In 1920 he was appointed a member of the Institution Committee on the deterioration of structures exposed to seawater; and he also served for a time as a member of the Committee, appointed by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, on gauging rivers and tidal currents.

Unwin’s labours and attainments gained for him the highest honours which his fellow engineers could bestow, though, to the regret of many of them, national recognition of his services to engineering science and education was lacking. Probably, however, he regarded the award to him of the Kelvin medal, which he received from the hands of the late Earl Balfour in 1921, as the crowning proof that, in his own modest words, "my career has been creditable and useful to other engineers."

Leaving for later reference his connection with The Institution over a period of 66 years, mention may first be made of the honours conferred upon him by numerous other engineering and scientific societies. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1856, and was a member of its Council 1894-96 ; President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers 1915-17, of the Junior Institution of Engineers in 1888, and of Section G of the British Association in 1892. Honorary Membership was conferred upon him by the American Societies of Civil and Mechanical Engineers and the Liege Association of Engineers. He was elected a Member of the Council of the Royal Society of Arts in 1912, and was President of the Smeatonian Society in 1912. He was also an Honorary Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. The only university which conferred an honorary degree upon him was the University of Edinburgh, of which he was made LL.D. in 1905.

Unwin was elected into The Institution on the 5th February, 1867, and transferred to full Membership on the 30th October, 1877. He was elected a Member of Council in 1900, a Vice-President in 1908, and President in 1911. For many years after his Presidency the Council regularly chose him as one of the four Past-Presidents appointed annually to be Members of the Council. On the 2nd December, 1924, he was, on their recommendation, elected as an Honorary Member.

His interest in The Institution was lifelong, and the value of his services to it can hardly be overestimated. He contributed to its Proceedings altogether thirteen Papers and took part in sixty-four discussions ; and he was a frequent contributor to the abstracts from foreign engineering literature in the earlier years of their publication in the Proceedings. He delivered the James Forrest Lecture of 1895, on "The Development of the Experimental Study of Heat Engines," and on three occasions lectured to the Students. He was one of five distinguished professors of engineering who, when the question of establishing Institution examinations was under consideration in 1897, gave evidence before a committee of the Council ; his advice and assistance were of great value in developing the lines on which the system of examinations was arranged ; and his help in dealing with questions that arose from time to time was invaluable. He succeeded Sir John Wolfe Barry as acting chairman of the Examinations Committee in 1918, and continued to serve in that capacity until 1923. He was Chairman of the Special Committee appointed by the Council in 1913 to report on the practical training of engineers, and was the representative of The Institution on the General Board of the National Physical Laboratory from 1900 to 1928. His last important service to The Institution and to the engineering profession generally was rendered in his eighty-seventh year, when he was Chairman of a joint Committee appointed in 1925 by The Institution, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Chartered Surveyors’ Institution, and the Institution of Structural Engineers, to consider a General Powers Bill promoted by the London County Council, especially in regard to proposed restrictions on the design and construction of reinforced-concrete buildings.

For his communications to The Institution he received Telford, Stephenson, and Watt medals, and in 1917 the Council awarded him the Howard Quinquennial Prize, for his "classic work on the testing of materials of construction and numerous and valuable investigations bearing on the strength of iron and steel."

He lived long enough to see many of his former students occupying leading positions in the engineering profession: all of them were united by a common bond of affection and admiration for him, to which they gave expression in many ways. On his retirement they established an annual Unwin Scholarship at the College to enable a third-year student to take a post-graduate course ; and his attainment of the Presidency of The Institution was celebrated at a dinner given to him by the Old Centralians. Since his death they have taken steps to have his library preserved in the College as a permanent memorial of him. His interest in their careers never flagged, and it was always a source of much gratification to him when a Paper contributed by one of them was brought forward at the Institution.

Mention has been made above of his early association with Sir William Fairbairn, whose friendship and interest in his career Unwin prized highly. Perhaps, also, he owed some of his success in later years to his early training in conducting scientific researches and drafting technical reports under the eye of so experienced a practical engineer. His books and his contributions to debate showed always that clear grasp of his subject and those gifts of exposition which rendered him so successful a teacher ; and he was an admirable man of business, in the conduct of which, it is no exaggeration to say, he never wrote or spoke a superfluous word.

Unwin did not marry. In 1884 he settled down at 7 Palace Gate Mansions, Kensington, where his home was cared for at first by his sister and, after her death in 1904 by his cousin, Miss Dorothy Unwin. There he lived for nearly 50 years, seeking occasional relaxation in travel, mountaineering, and fly-fishing, from the work which was his chief, but by no means his only, interest in life ; and there he passed away on the 17th March, 1933, in his ninety-fifth year.


A biography was written by E. G. Walker and privately published and circulated in 1938, and published for sale in 1947[4]

See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. The Engineer 1921/05/06
  2. 1933 Institution of Mechanical Engineers: Obituaries
  3. 1933 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries
  4. 'The Life and Work of William Cawthorne Unwin' by E. G. Walker; George Allen & Unwin, 1947