Byroms, Richard (2015) William Fairbairn - experimental engineer and mill-builder. Doctoral thesis, University of Huddersfield.

William Fairbairn was a major engineer, active in many branches of mid-nineteenth-century engineering. From an apprenticeship as a colliery millwright, he went on to establish a world-class engineering business in Manchester, playing a major role in mill-building, experimental engineering, bridge construction and iron shipbuilding. Despite his importance there is no modern study which brings together the many diverse areas of his work, and the company he founded, nor does any study give adequate emphasis to the discrete and different chronological phases of Fairbairn’s career.
The thesis aims to provide a composite study of Fairbairn’s life and work, answering three main questions. First, how is the rise of Fairbairn and his Company to positions of leadership and influence within the engineering industry accounted for? Secondly, in what respects were both Fairbairn and the Company he founded important and influential, and how was that influence spread? Thirdly what caused one of the most successful engineering companies, with a global reputation, to cease to trade within a year of its founder’s death? The opportunity is taken to re-assess the range and significance of Fairbairn’s contributions to nineteenth-century engineering.
This thesis argues that Fairbairn was more an ‘innovator’ and optimiser than an inventor. Five areas stand out as particularly influential amongst the multiplicity of his achievements, as a builder of mills with their prime-movers, as the foremost experimental engineer of his time outside the universities, as a leading iron shipbuilder during iron shipbuilding’s most critical decade - 1835-1844, as a builder of tubular structures – bridges and cranes - during a two-decade window, and in connection with steam boilers.
The thesis shows education to have been a lifelong commitment of Fairbairn, with his Ancoats works the successor to Maudslay’s ‘nursery’. It also poins to him as a transitional figure in a time of rapid change. However his career was unpredictable. No one model of technological innovation fits all Fairbairn’s work, and his investigations and experiments challenge the imposition of any uniform theory of technological change.
Set-backs are identified, as well as Fairbairn’s successes. Reasons are argued for the dissolution of his partnership with Lillie, the closure of his shipyard, and his failure to obtain various bridge commissions. The ultimate demise of a great engineering firm, within a year of its founder’s death, is traced primarily to the matter of succession following Fairbairn’s retirement from a managerial role, and the contrasting approach of his successors.

Final thesis - BYROM.pdf - Accepted Version
Available under License Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives.

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