A subject that much interested Mr. Fairbairn
during the best part of his life, and one on which he did most valuable
service, was that of steam-boilers.
Iu his large practice as a manufacturer of
steam-engines, he could not fail to see the extreme importance of that
element of the machine from which its power was derived. He had his
attention directed to the frequent occurrence of disastrous explosions ; and
hence he was led to study carefully the mechanical principles involved in
the construction and arrangement of boilers. He noticed many defects, and
introduced several important improvements. He further made it his business
to promulgate knowledge by writings and lectures on the structure and
management of boilers ; and last, though not least, he founded a public
association for the object of promoting safety in their use for
manufacturing purposes generally.
Mr. Fairbairn began to make steam-engines soon
after 1832, and the construction of the boilers for them formed an extensive
manufacture in itself. In 1837 he applied to them his new invention of the
riveting machine, as described in Chapter X.; and a few years later, viz.,
in 1844, he introduced a valuable change in boiler design.
lie was always an advocate for high-pressure
steam, on account of its economical advantage but its use was limited by a
fear of danger in the vessel wherein it was generated. The kind of boiler
which had been found by experience to be best adapted for this purpose was
that known as the Cornish or Trevithick's boiler.
This was of cylindrical form, having a tube running through it in which the
fire was placed, in the manner shown in the first of the following figures.
This had the disadvantage that the tube must
necessarily be of large size, so as to admit sufficient fire, and it was on
that account exposed to a severe external crushing strain, which its form
was not well calculated to bear. It had also the evil that the water over
the top of the tube was only of small depth, and that if by accident the
water level happened to get low, the top of the tube, being exposed to the
most intense action of the fire, was liable, to become overheated, which
would lead to danger of explosion. The steam space was also contracted by
the necessary height of the water line.
Mr. Fairbairn's improvement consisted in
using two internal fire-tubes, of smaller size, instead of one large one.
These tubes were subject to a much diminished external strain, while at the
same time they allowed of an increase of the fire-grate and heating surface;
and, what was of more importance, a much greater depth of water could be
maintained over them, and the level could, if necessary, be lowered so as to
enlarge the steam room. The second figure shows the improved arrangement.
The idea, though extremely simple, was admirably
practical and useful; and the invention was patented by Win. Fairbairn and
John Hetherington (an engineer who had aided hiin in it), on April 30, 1844
This form of boiler found great favour. It was
soon widely adopted, and is now by tar the most usual construction for
high-pressure boilers in the manufacturing districts. Indeed, so common is
it there that it is often called the ' Lancashire Boiler' in
contradistinction to the ' Cornish ' one, which prevails in the
Independently, however, of his practice in the
construction of boilers, Mr. Fairbairn had his attention called to them in
another way, as it had been his lot to get many lamentable cases where
either inattention to the proper principles of construction, or careless
management, had caused disastrous explosions and fearful destruction of life
The great extension of manufacturing industry in
the Lancashire and Yorkshire towns had led to the employment of steam-power
to a vast extent; steam-engines were required in great numbers, and their
manufacture was often undertaken by persons not well instructed in
scientific principles, and at prices which did not admit of all possible
care being taken in regard to the proportions or the practical workmanship.
Moreover, these engines were not unfrequently
worked under careless management, being put into the charge of incompetent
or ignorant men, unable to see where danger arose, or unscrupulous as to
overtaxing the powers of the apparatus. Hence, boiler explosions became but
too common in these districts; and when they did occur, from the magnitude
of the buildings and the great number of people employed, the consequences
were usually very severe.
The worst feature of the case was that the
causes of these explosions were often very difficult to trace out. The
destruction was so complete that tangible evidence was iu a great measure
destroyed; and it usually happened that the persons who would have been best
able to throw light on the causes were killed. The proprietors or managers,
not wishing to criminate themselves, were loth to admit that there had been
anything amiss in construction or attention, and hence all sorts of fanciful
theories were conjured up, such as electric action, chemical decomposition
of the steam, and mysterious agencies of many kinds, to account for what was
merely a natural sequence from simple mechanical conditions.
At the inquests held on such occasions the
juries were often puzzled by these various theories, and it became a common
custom for coroners or magistrates to call in an independent and impartial
engineer to aid in the investigations, and to endeavour to throw light on
the causes of the accidents.
Mr. Fairbairn, from his great experience and
high reputation, was much iu request on these occasions, a few of which may
In November 1815 he attended at Bolton, to
examine into the circumstances of a disastrous explosion, by which fourteen
lives were lost. He gave evidence at the inquest, pointing out defects in
the boiler arrangements, and the jury returned a verdict of manslaughter
against one of the partners, with a recommendation that Mr. Fairbairn's
report 'should be forwarded to the Secretary of State for the Home
Department, with a view of bringing the subject of steam-boilers before the
In December 1850 he was called in by the
magistrates of Halifax, to investigate a serious explosion that had taken
place there, and which he succeeded in tracing to the weakness of a certain
part of the boiler.
In November 1853 he attended at Blackburn, to
give evidence on the bursting of a boiler at a mill im that town, by which
seven persons were killed, and which he traced clearly to the defective
condition of the boiler. He declined to receive remuneration for his sen-ices,
directing that the fee offered him should be applied for the benefit of the
families of the sufferers.
Many similar accidents were investigated by him,
among which was the unfortunate explosion of a locomotive during its testing
at the Atlas Locomotive Works of Messrs. Sharp, Roberts & Co., Manchester,
in July 1858, by which nine persons were killed.
It was felt that it would be very useful both to
the manufacturers and users of steam machinery if Mr. Fairbairn would make
some publication of the knowledge he had gained on this subject, and at the
beginning of 1851 he received the following letter :—
Lewis, January 11, 18.il.
My dear Sir,—It has occurred to the Committee of
the Yorkshire Union of Mechanics' Institutes that you might confer an
important lioou on the manufacturing classes of Yorkshire if you could
deliver a lecture on 'Steam-Engine Boilers, the causes of explosion, and the
means of prevention,' or something to that effect.
You have bestowed so much attention on the
boiler explosion at Halifax, that we hope the preparation of the lecture
would not be attended with much trouble.
That, and other similar calamities, would cause
your lecture to be received with great interest. Our idea is that it should
be a lecture expressly adapted to practical men, both to masters and engine
tenters. We should ask the favour, if your numerous engagements would
permit, of your delivering the lecture first to the Leeds Mechanics'
Institution; and should say that you would lay the public under additional
obligation if you could afterwards repeat the lecture in the Mechanics'
Institutions of the three other great manufacturing towns of Yorkshire,
Bradford, Halifax, and Huddersfield.
We feel that this is a very bold request to
make, and we could not have made it had we not known your public spirit, and
also that you are already fully charged with all the facts on the subject.
The report of the lecture in the papers would
make it useful through the whole of Yorkshire and far beyond.
You are aware that the Earl of Carlisle has set
a noble example by delivering two lectures to our Mechanics' Institution;
but you do not need an example, as you have always been friendly to the
diffusion of science and the advancement of the operative classes.
Requesting your kind consideration of our
proposal, I am, dear sir, yours truly,
President of the Yorkshire Union of Mechanics'
Wm. Fairbairn, Esq.
He complied with this request, and on April 23rd
and 24th he delivered two lectures before the Leeds Mechanics' Institution.
In the first lecture, ' On the Construction of Boilers,' he discussed the
forms, proportions, and material of such vessels, and the forces they were
subject to ; in the second, ' On Boiler Explosions,' he explained the
various probable causes of such accidents (giving many examples in
illustration), and described various precautionary measures with the object
of guarding against them. The lectures were repeated in several
manufacturing town?, and were printed by the committee in the form of a
cheap tract, 'in the hope that much practical benefit might result from
their publication in that manufacturing district.' They were afterwards
re-published in 'Useful Information for Engineers,' and in several foreign
At the meeting of the British Association at
Hull, in September 1853, Mr. Fairbairn communicated a paper, entitled
'Experimental Researches to determine the Strength of Locomotive Boilers,
and the causes which lead to explosion.' This was brought about by the
bursting of a locomotive boiler belonging to the London and North-Western
Railway at Manchester. Differences of opinion had arisen among engineers in
regard to the causes of the failure of the boiler, and Mr. Fairbairn
instituted a series of experiments fur the purpose of settling the question.
They were directed to the resistance of locomotive boilers generally, and in
particular to the strength of the screwed stays by which the internal
fire-box is secured to the outer shell. A locomotive boiler was subjected to
hydraulic pressure, increased till the boiler gave way, and it was inferred
that it would bear 300 to 350 lbs. pressure per square inch before bursting.
A trial was also made to determine the rate at which the pressure would
rise, supposing the fire kept top and the safety-valve closed, and it was
found that in about halt-an-hour a bursting force would be attained.
But, not satisfied with merely talking or
writing about boiler explosions, the idea occurred to Mr. Fairbairn of doing
something practical to prevent them, or at least to render them less
frequent; and this idea led to the foundation by him of an ' Association for
the Prevention of Steam Boiler Explosions,' which has been of incalculable
benefit in the saving of life and property, and, in fact, has become, under
his guidance, one of the most valuable mechanical institutions of the
country. It is only due to him to give an account of the rise and progress
of this excellent society.2
His notion was that, as he was convinced all
boiler explosions arose from ordinary mechanical causes easily avoidable, it
would be possible, by careful and frequent inspection or examination, to
discover wdien anything was likely to go wrong, and so to apply a remedy in
time. And he conceived that, by the formation of a society, this inspection
might be made systematic, and might combine other advantages with that of
It was about 1851 that he first gave expression
to this idea. In his evidence with regard to a boiler explosion at
Stockport, about April of that year, he said :—
It seems to me that there should be some
association, either under the local authorities or under Government, by
which registers should be kept, not only with reference to the safety of the
public, but also to show what duty engines and boilers perform. The best
results have arisen from such regulations in Cornwall, and it has led there
to the greatest possible economy.
Further, at the Blackburn case in 1853, he again
called attention to the subject:—
I think the inspection would be better in the
hands of the proprietors of steam-engines, if they would undertake it, than
in those of the Government. If the proprietors undertook the work it would
have to be done under an Association of employers, and I have no doubt it
would be much more acceptable to manufacturers that they should have the
control of their own engines and boilers than that the Government should
The following extract of a letter shows that he
had about this time been discussing the subject with his friends :—
Manchester, July 28, 1851.
Dear Sir,—The recent lamentable boiler explosion
has recalled to my mind the subject of a conversation we had some time
since, when we accidentally met in a railway carriage.
I think you then expressed the opinion that much
would be done to prevent these catastrophes if owners of steam-engines couhl
agree to retain the services of a suitable inspector, who should
periodically examine and report upon the condition of the boilers and
I hope that the importance of the subject will
lead you to lay your views in some practical form liefore the public, and
thus add one more to the many services you have already conferred upon it.
I remain, dear sir,
Your obedient servant,
Wm Fairbairn, Esq.
Mr. Fairbairn replied, and promptly gave
attention to the matter. His first step was to find an influential
manufacturer and mill-owner who would take an interest in the scheme; and he
made a happy choice in Mr. Henry Houldsworth, the chief partner in a large
firm of cotton spinners in Manchester. Some other gentlemen were spoken to,
and a preliminary meeting was held on August 15; the general feeling was
found to be favour able to the formation of such a society, and Mr.
Fairbairn was deputed to sketch out its objects and rules, with the view of
submitting them to a larger and more general meeting to be called for the
Meantime the attention of the public, was
attracted to the proposal. A notice of the first meeting had appeared in the
' Manchester Guardian' of August 16, and the same paper, on
September 16, devoted a leading article to a further explanation of the
nature and objects of the proposed association, warmly recommending it to
the attention of engineers and manufacturers.
The ' Mining Journal' of September 9,1851,
recorded the verdict of the coroner's jury on a fearful boiler explosion at
Eoehdale, which concluded with the following paragraph :—
The jury cannot separate without pressing on the
consideration of the owners and users of steam-boilers throughout the
kingdom the necessity there is that measures should be taken by them to
ensure a thorough and frequent inspection of boilers, so as to prevent, as
far as human foresight can, the recurrence of explosions.
In giving his evidence on this tragic case
(where ten persons were blown to atoms and an immense deal of property was
destroyed), Mr. Fairbairn
Suggested it was possible, and indeed quite
practicable, to establish associations in the several districts, the members
of which should appoint inspectors to take cognizance of the boilers within
their respective precincts, and to report to the association weekly in what
state they found them, and the causes which prevented them from being in
working order, if the inspectors should consider such to be the ease. He did
not conceive that it would be any tax on the proprietors of boilers to pay a
trifling sum yearly to meet the expense of such an association, for it
struck him forcibly that, in addition to preventing those very serious
accidents, it would be productive of benefit to the proprietors themselves,
and save a great deal of money.
The 'Journal' added:—
Since the above observations were written, we
perceive that Mr. Fairbairn's earnest recommendation has been adopted, and
that an association has been formed in the district for the inspection of
steam-boilers and the prevention of boiler explosions. We cannot avoid
anticipating from it the best results.
On the 19th of September a second meeting,
convened by circular, was held in the Manchester Town Hall, the Mayor in the
chair, when a committee was appointed for making arrangements for the
formation of the association. They set vigorously to work, and for some time
met every week, the minutes being usually signed either by William Fairbairn
or Joseph Whitworth, or both.
They succeeded in enrolling 271 steam-users as
members, and on Jan. 23*(1855, they called another public meeting at which
the Society was formally established.
Mr. Houldsworth was the first president, but in
April 1858, he retired, and Mr. Fairbairn was elected in his place, a
position which he held tiil his death. He was ever one of the most active
and persevering supporters of the association, always accessible to the
chief engineer when seeking his advice, and always one of the most regular
in his attendance at the meetings of the executive committee. He always
advocated the view that steam-boiler explosions arose simply from a greater
pressure of steam than the boiler was able to withstand, and never afforded
any countenance to those fanciful and visionary theories that would have
attributed them to mysterious causes. He maintained that periodical
inspection was adequate to prevent the greater number of explosions, and he
wished inspection to be the fundamental principle of safety.
The institution is now in a most flourishing
condition. Its full title is, The Manchester Steam Users' Association, for
the Prevention of Steam-boiler Explosions, and for the attainment of Economy
in the Application of Steam.
Its objects and constitution are stated as
This association undertakes the periodical
inspection of steam-boilers, and gives a pecuniary guarantee of the
integrity and efficiency of its inspections to the amount of 300?. on each
boiler enrolled, so that in the event of the explosion of an approved
boiler, whether that explosion arise from collapse of the furnace tubes, or
from rupture of the shell, or failure of any part of the boiler whatever,
ail damage done thereby, other than by fire, whether to the boiler itself or
to the surrounding property, will be made good to the extent of 300?.
The association also assists its members by
taking indicator diagrams when requested, as well as by affording competent
engineering advice with regard to the working of boilers and engines, the
prevention of smoke, the economy of fuel, and any other points calculated to
prove of value to the members of the association as steam-users.
Its system of inspection is voluntary, and
permissive on the part of its members. Its reports are suggestive and
recommendatory on the part of its officers. Its benefits are mutually-shared
by all enrolled. There are no shareholders to whom dividends are paid out of
the members' subscriptions, but the funds are devoted solely to promote the
direct objects of the association. The executive committee are appointed by
the general voice of the members of the association. They receive no
remuneration for their services. They employ a considerable amount of
steam-power themselves, and are thus interested in everything that affects
The object of the guarantee is not so much to
ensure the members against pecuniary loss in case of explosion, as to give a
pledge of the bona fide intention of the association to prevent the
occurrence of explosions by efficient supervision and careful periodical
The number of members in 1874 was 768, and the
annual income 5,236. The number of boilers under regular inspection was
Soon after the foundation of the Boiler
Association, Mr. Fairbairn determined to follow out one of the ideas which
had been present to his mind when he established the society. It was
originally his intention that the association, in addition to the
commonplace work of inspecting boilers and finding out faulty or weak
places, should undertake the investigation of theoretical principles. The
practical views of his coadjutors were opposed to this, and it was struck
out of the programme; but Mr. Fairbairn, nothing daunted, resolved to effect
the investigations in his own way.
At the meeting of the British Association at
Glasgow, in 1858, he urged the subject upon many scientific friends, and as
the importance of it was admitted, it was agreed that the Koyal Society and
the British Association should jointly authorise the enquiry, and should
furnish a grant of money for the expenses.
The objects immediately named were to
investigate certain doubtful points in the construction of boilers, and in
the nature of steam. The former was first undertaken, and Mr. Fairbairn
availed himself of the assistance of a practical mathematician, Mr. Thomas
Tate (who had previously aided him in other labours) and Mr. Unwin, a young
engineer, whom he had engaged as secretary.
The first result was a paper : On the Resistance
of Tubes to Collapse,' read before the Royal Society May 20, 1858, and
afterwards published in the Philosophical Transactions. It has already been
mentioned that the internal tubes, or fire dues, of high pressure boilers,
are subject to a severe external pressure, tending to cause them to collapse
or crush in; in fact, they form the weakest and most dangerous element of
the construction, inasmuch as the external crushing force is uncertain and
obscure in its action, and the resistance to be provided against it is
difficult to determine. When accidents have occurred with this kind of
boiler, it is almost always the internal tube that has given way; ami some
cases of collapse have occurred with a very moderate pressure.
No scientific or well-founded ride existed to
guide the design or proportions of this part of a boiler, and hence it was
desirable in the first place to make some experiments of a general nature to
ascertain the resistance of tubes to strains acting in this way.
For this purpose, tubes of various dimensions,
thick nesses, and lengths, were constructed, and were subjected, in a closed
water bath, to external hydrostatic pressure till they collapsed, the
pressures and the circumstances of collapse being carefully recorded.
The particulars were given in the paper, but the
general result deduced from the whole was that the strength of the tubes
diminished in an important degree as their length increased, a principle of
much importance, on account of the great length steam-boilers were usually
It was always Mr. Fairbairn's principle to give,
if he could, a practical value to his enquiries; and having discovered the
defect, he set to work to find a remedy. It occurred to him that it would be
possible effectively to shorten the tubes, without shortening the boiler.
For this purpose he inserted stiff rings of iron at various points in the
length, which served as supports to the tube in the places where they were
fixed, so that the effective length of the tube was shortened to the
distance between two of these rings. For example: in a boiler 24 feet long,
by inserting two rings, the effective length of the tube became reduced from
24 feet to 8 feet, and the resistance to collapse was increased accordingly.
He further suggested some improvements in the riveting, the advantages of
which were described in the paper.
Mr. Fairbairn, in his Autobiography, thus
alludes to this memoir:—
Shortly after the meeting of the British
Association in Glasgow, I entered upon a long series of experiments on the
law of the resistance of tubes to collapse. These investigations were the
more interesting as they led to the establishment of the law of collapse
from pressure on the external surfaces ; and the improvements deduced from
this law led to the security of steam-boilers, by doubling or trebling their
powers of resistance, and thus were the means of saving many valuable lives
from violent death by explosion.
This was an important discovery, for ..in the
case of steam-boilers with tubes it was found that the internal tubes were,
in most cases, only one-third of the strength of the outer shell, and hence
the fallacy of the ordinary belief, that the tubes from their reduced
diameters were stronger than any other part of the boiler.
Another important feature iu these
investigations was, that by simply encircling the tube with two or more
rigid rings, the resistance to collapse was increased in the inverse ratio
of the distances between the rings.
The experiments were very expensive, as large
and powerful apparatus had to be prepared to sustain a pressure of upwards
of 300 lbs. per square inch. In this I was assisted by a grant from the
Royal Society, out of the Government fund, and I had every facility for
conducting them at the engine shed of the Loudon and North Western Company
at Longsight, .Manchester, who were interested in the subject.
This essay was one of the most meritorious works
of Mr. Fairbairn's scientific and professional career, and deserves more
credit than it has generally received. The process of investigation was
admirably philosophical; there was first the ascertaining of facts by
careful and well-directed experiment and observation; then there was the
deduction from them, by scientific reasoning, of a general theoretical law";
and finally there was the invention and application of a measure founded on
that law, which rendered the whole of practical utility and advantage. Mr.
Fairbairn's anti-collapse flue rings, which arose out of this investigation,
have been in constant use ever since, and have been the salvation of the
high pressure stationary-engine boiler.
An abbreviated account of the investigation was
published in the Report of the British Association for 1857.
On May 12, 1859, a second paper was read at the
Royal Society, as a sequel to the former one, and in this Mr. Fairbairn
connected Mr. Tate's name with his own.
It was entitled 'On the Resistance of Glass
Globes and Cylinders to Collapse from Internal Pressure, and on the tensile
and compressive Strength of various kinds of Glass,' and was published in
the Philosophical Transactions for the year.
The novel results arising out of the first
trials had suggested the propriety of carrying them farther, with a
variation in the nature of the material; and glass was chosen, as a
homogeneous crystalline and rigid substance, to contrast with the ductile
and fibrous one at first employed. Moreover it was remarked that, much as
glass was employed in philosophical experiments, there was a want of
information as to its properties, which it was very desirable to supply.
Accordingly, the strength of glass to resist
tensile and compressive forces was first experimented on ; after which
trials were made on the power of glass vessels to resist external crushing
force. The law of their strength was found to correspond with that deduced
for iron tubes.
An anticipatory notice of this series of
experiments was communicated to the British Association at their Leeds
meeting, September 1858.
A third paper, which arose out of the boiler
enquiry, was presented to the Eoyal Society on May 10, 1860. It w7as
entitled 'Experimental Eesearches to determine the Density of Steam at
Different Temperatures; and to determine the Law of Expansion of Superheated
Steam, by William Fairbairn, Esq., F.E.S., and Thomas Tate, Esq.' This paper
was considered of such importance and merit that it was selected by the
Society as the ' Bakerian Lecture ' for the year, and it was published in
the Phil. Trans., vol. cl.
The first object of the enquiry was to determine
by direct experiment the law of the density and expansion of steam and other
comlensible vapours at all temperatures. Theoretical laws had been
propounded and extensively adopted, but no trustworthy direct experiments
had been made to test their truth. The paper gave full details of a large
number of carefully conducted observations made with this object, with a
deduction of generalised formula: from the results obtained.
The second part of the paper was devoted to an
investigation of the laws of what is called superheated steam. A plan had
been coming into use, for steam-engines, of heating the steam after it had
left the boiler, with the object of evaporating any water it might contain,
and rendering it dry. This process, which was called superheating, was
supposed to offer practical advantages, but no sufficient investigation had
previously been made of the properties of steam so treated. The paper
supplied, to a certain extent, this deficiency.
The authors were assisted by Mr. Unwin, and Mr.
Fairbairn testified to the great precision and care with which the
experiments were conducted. The substance of the enquiry was laid before the
mechanical section of the British Association at their Aberdeen meeting in
In this paper Mr. Fairbairn had occasion to
refer to the great researches on vapours by the eminent French philosopher,
Begnault. From the wide reputation of these researches and of their author,
the following letter may be placed on record :—
Mon cher Mr. Fairbaim,—J'ai reju votre lettre,
et je m'empresse d'y repondre par ecrit, afin de pouvoir vous l'envoyer de
Paris, car lundi prochain je pars pour Londres, et j'espere bien que j'aurai
1'occasion de discuter oralement avec vous les questions importantes que
vous avez traitees.
Vous pouvez faire l'usage que vous voudrez du
tableau uumerique que je vous ai donne sur les forces elastiques des vapeurs.
Grace au Ciel, le gros volume qui contient l'ensemble de mes experiences est
enfin termine. Toici sept ans que l'im-j/rimeur a commence ; vous jugerez
facilement que le volume represente une enorme labeur.
J'espere apporter ce volume moi-meme a la
Societe Royale de Londres. 11 ne manque que la planche qui renferme les
courbes grapliiques et qui n'est pas entidrement termine a la gravure.
J'aurai rhonneur de vous en offrir aussi un
exemplaire quand le tirage sera termine.
Veuillez me croire
Votre serviteur devoue,
Some years before Mr. Fairbairn's death the
question was much agitated whether it would be advisable to introduce any
legislative measures to ensure the safety of boilers, or to prevent or
diminish the danger of explosion. Mr. Fairbairn took much interest in the
controversy. It seems that the matter had also excited interest in France,
for in 1863 the eminent French mechanical engineer, M. Chas. Combes, wrote
to ask Mr. Fairbairn's opinion, which was given as follows :—
Manchester: March 28, 1863.
My dear Sir,—In this country we are always
jealous of Government interference, in matters relating to the industrial
projects of individuals in their single or collective capacity, and that for
two reasons ; firstly, that official inspection is not always judicious;
and, secondly, that it removes the responsibility off the shoulders of those
that ought to bear it.
I am quite aware of the regulations which exist
in France as regards the construction of boilers, but in this country4we
prefer that the owners of boilers should be responsible for their own
actions, and the Government holds them responsible in every instance where
loss of life or injury to the person arises from any neglect on their part.
This is the extent of the English law, and every man is at liberty to make
any description of boiler he pleases, but he must be answerable for the
results. It is true, and we. admit it to be the duty of every Government to
afford protection to life anil property, but not to interfere so as to cramp
the energies and enterprise of individuals iu their pursuit of knowledge,
and the advancement of industrial resources.
In this country, as in France, but at a later
period, there was a transfer from the low-pressure system, as adopted by
Watt, to that of high pressure, working the steam expansively, by which a
considerable saving of fuel was effected. During the time of this change,
which spread over a series of years, many serious accidents, attended with
loss of life, occurred, and the public, in this district became alarmed to
such a degree, that we found it necessary, in order to prevent Government
interference, to establish the association of which I send you the rules.
Being the founder of this association, I have never ceased to advocate its
efficiency, and the principles on which it is founded. Out of an average of
1,600 boilers under the inspection of the association only three accidents,
with the loss of two lives, have occurred during the eight years of its
This association takes cognizance of the
construction, form, and quality of material used, and the monthly reports
point out, in every case, but without mentioning names, the defects that
require attention, and of which a written statement is immediately forwarded
to the proprietor, leaving it to his option to apply the remedies or not as
he may deem expedient.
I have now to reply to your queries as follow,
1. Is it desirable to fix by law, under penalty
of fines, the thickness of plates, &c.
Answer.—It is not. desirable, as there is a
great difference in the quality of plates. These points are left to the
makers, and the association make no recommendations. They simply
inspect existing boilers, and point out the defects, if any, and suggest the
remedies to be applied.
2. Do you consider the previous testing
Answer.—We consider a hydraulic test necessary
up to one and a half times, or in some cases to double the pressure at which
the boiler is worked.
3. (Question not quoted.)
4. Is it desirable, to prescribe, under penalty
of fine, the combustion of smoke?
Answer.—Yes, under local acts applied to towns,
as the emission of smoke from furnaces may he prevented.
5. Are there any rules in England respecting the
condition of the boiler house, &c.?
Answer.—There is no condition by law, but it is
desirable in every case to have boilers in a separate building, distinct
from the factory where a number of persons are employed.
M. Charits Combfs, Member of the Institute.
A little later the subject was taken up at the
British Association, who, at their meeting at Norwich in 1868, appointed a
committee, consisting of Messrs. Fairbairn, Whitworth, Penn, Hick, Bramwell,
Webster, Fletcher, and others, to consider ' how far coroners' inquisitions
are satisfactory tribunals for the investigation of boiler explosions, and
how these tribunals may be improved.' The committee reported at the Exeter
meeting in 1869, to the general effect that the inquests were
unsatisfactory, and with a recommendation that coroners should get the
assistance of skilled engineers. The report alluded to the fact that during
the past session a bill had been introduced into Parliament for placing all
steam-boilers under Government inspection; but the committee expressed a
strong dread of any such legislative interference, iu which the meeting of
the Association concurred.
The next year, 1870, the bill was re-introduced,
when Sir William personally exerted himself to procure its rejection, and to
obtain instead the appointment of a select committee to investigate the
question. His efforts were successful, and the committee was appointed on
They sat many days, and took evidence, but could
not conclude their labours, and adjourned over the recess.
In the meantime the committee of the British
Association, at their meeting at Liverpool in 1870, took up the matter
again, and presented a long report, the gist of which was in the last
Tliey are convinced that explosion might be, and
ought to be, prevented; that competent inspection is adequate for the
purpose; and that any well organised system of inspection extended
throughout the entire country would partially extinguish boiler explosions.
But they did not point out what was the best
means of ensuring this inspection.
The House of Commons Committee met again in
March 1871, and took more evidence; but Sir Win. Fairbairn, conceiving that
some of this was misleading, at once wrote an energetic letter to Mr. John
Hick, the chairman, pro testing against it, and showing its fallacy. The
committee reported in June, but their report did not go farther than to
recommend that the responsibility of explosion should remain upon the steam
users ; and that the efficiency of coroners' enquiries should be somewhat
This left the question just where it was, and
Sir WjI iiam had the gratification of seeing that, although his favourite
remedy of inspection had not received Parliamentary confirmation, he had at
any rate succeeded in defeating the attempt to introduce Government
In April 1871 he published an article in the '
Quarterly Journal of Science,' embodying his views on this subject.
Sir William, in his late years, again exercised
his invention on the subject of boilers. In 1870 he took out a patent (March
18, Xo. 810) for improvements in them, lie had long held the opinion that it
would he advantageous to use a still higher pressure of steam. It had
already been much increased in locomotives, and he believed it might be also
increased with benefit in stationary engines, if the boilers could be made
strong enough to bear the requisite strain with safety. He had, in his two
hued boiler with the stiffening rings, added greatly to the strength; but
any great power was required, it was necessary
to have the outside shell of a large diameter, which always involved more or
less danger, the risk being proportionate to the size. lie strove,
therefore, to contrive a form of boiler which, while retaining ample heating
surface and evaporating power, should enable him materially to reduce the
diameter of the vessels used ; and the arrangement he hit upon was to
substitute three or more smaller vessels for one large one. He placed the
lire or furnace tubes within external shells, not much larger than
themselves (thus leaving merely annular water spaces round them) and he
added above them other vessels for the purpose of obtaining the requisite
water and steam room ; proper communication pipes being made to connect the
various vessels together. The annexed figure will illustrate the nature of
the new construction.
By this means he could make, lie stated, boilers
which would have a resistance equal to 75U lbs. pressure per square inch. He
also added arrangements by which the examination, cleaning, and repair of
the boilers might be much facilitated, knowing how much the safety and
economy of working depended on these precautious.
In 1873 he took out another patent (January 23,
No. 270), in conjunction with Mr. Thos. Beeley, a boiler-maker at Hyde, near
Manchester, for improvements in the 1870 form of boiler, wliich rendered it
more especially suitable for steam vessels; and in February 1874, he sent to
the Admiralty a design for the adaptation of the new boiler to one of Her
Majesty's frigates, the ' Paring.'
At the beginning of 1871, a few months before
his death, lie expressed a wish to resign the chairmanship of the Boiler
Association ; receiving the following letter in reply from one of his
Oroby Ltd, Ashton-under-Lyne, Maxell 10, 1874.
My dear Sir William,—Your letter of resignation
was reaii at our meeting to-day, and there was evoked one united response
expressive uf the feelings which in every heart arose on the reading of it.
A resolution was promptly adopted, which will be sent to you officially. It
conveys a very inadequate and imperfect recognition of the honour and esteem
in which you
are held by your colleagues. We cannot let you
break your official connection with us yet. So long in the Almighty is
pleased to spare your valuable life, I earnestly hope we may have the great
honour of your presidency. Your name and high character are a tower of
strength to the Association of which you are the founder. Your services can
never be realised. You have been the instrument of paving very many valuable
lives by means of the Association. Allow us to continue to receive the
lustre of your great name. For your sake we will do our best to uphold the
reputation of the society. I feel it a very great honour to have been
associated with you. May the years of your declining life be blessed with
"With great respect, I remain,
My dear Sir William, yours sincerely,
Sir William Fairbairn, Bart.
The last letter he wrote on engineering matters
was one dated June 8, 1874, to Mr. Fletcher, the engineer of the
Association, referring to a proposed test of one of his new boilers by
hydraulic pressure up to the bursting point. The Association had a facsimile
taken and distributed, as a memorial of their respected founder; a copy is
inserted on the opposite page.
Mr. Fletcher has favoured the editor with the
following remarks on the subject of boiler explosions, which, in
consideration of the importance of this subject, and the great interest Sir
William Fairbairn took in it, may be inserted here.
Manchester, July 5, 1878.
Dear Sir,—In addition to the information already
furnished with regard to the Manchester Steam Users' Association, it may
perhaps be of further assistance if I add a few lines thereto.
When the association first started its
operation', a good deal of mystery was attached to the subject of steam
boiler explosions, and they were apt to be attributed to very recondite
causes. The association has been at the expense, however, of investigating
the cause of every boiler explosion which has occurred for many years in any
part of the country, cavefully recording the results, and circulating
amongst the members and the public generally, by means of its printed
monthly reports, an abridged account of the cause of each of these
The association has always advocated the view
that explosions are not mysterious and not accidental, but that they arise
from simple causes, the cause being, in the great majority of cases, merely
that the boiler is too weak for the pressure at which it is worked, the
weakness in some cases resulting from original malconstruction, such as the
want of encircling hoops round the flues, &c., and in others from wear and
tear, wasting of the thickness of the plate by corrosion, &c. All our
investigations go to support the simple statement of the late Joshua Field,
when President of the Institute of Civil Engineers, viz., that ' boilers
burst because they are not strong enough.' That we lind to be the whole
secret. The association does not take credit to itself for having arrived at
this conclusion, but it has endeavoured persistently to keep this view
before the public, and those not brought face to face with the circumstances
of the case will scarcely believe how difficult it is to get this
view-accepted after an explosion has occurred. The boiler owner and the
boiler maker have both an interest in throwing the blame on the attendant,
so that they always attempt to show that the explosion was due to shortness
of water, through the attendant's failing to keep up the regular supply. In
some cases the most absurd and fanciful theories have been suggested to
account for explosions. They have been attributed to the formation of gases
inside the boiler, ignited by the fire outside through cracks in the plates.
In some cases they have been attributed to a sudden accession of pressure
through the mixture of two steams flowing from different boilers. They have
been sometimes attributed to magnetism or, in fact, to any cause but
unscientific construction or the bad condition of the boiler. In Cornwall we
find it most difficult to induce boiler owners to strengthen the furnace
tubes with hoops. They cannot be persuaded that a boiler can burst unless
short of water.
Sir William Fairbairn and the members of the
executive committee, as steam users, always entertained a very wholesome
dread of Governmental interference with private industries, and therefore
hoped, by taking up the system of periodical boiler inspection, to render
Governmental inspection unnecessary, so that they had in view a double
object—one, to prevent the sacrifice of life by steam-boiler explosions; the
other, to prevent Governmental interference, which it vias feared this loss
of life would provoke. It is interesting to trace how the working of the
association for years has somewhat led to a modification of the view with
regard to Governmental interference, and this is a point to which I would
call attention. It was found that, in spite of all the association could do,
steam users still persisted in working old and dangerous boilers, and
continued year after year to incur on an average fifty explosions, killing
between sixty and seventy persons, and injuring about 100 others. Seeing
that inspection was competent to prevent these disasters, the association
felt at length compelled to urge on the Government to interfere in the
interest of the public safety, and to take some measures to stimulate steam
users to a due sense of their responsibility. What the association
recommends is that the Government should institute an impartial and
thoroughly competent tribunal to make a most searching investigation in the
event of every explosion, so as to bring the blame home to the right party,
the tribunal being empowered to institute a prosecution. The association has
twice waited on the Home Secretary with memorials to this effect; the first
time in June, 1875, and the second in June, 1876. The deputation was
favourably received on each occasion (the memorials are published in our
proceedings). Prior to this, the association had presented a memorial to the
Home Secretary, in April, 1869, very much to the same effect as those
referred to, the primary difference being that in the memorial of 1869 we
proposed that the investigation should be conducted by the coroner's court,
aided by scientific assessors, and in the memorials of 1875-76 it was to be
conducted by another and more competent court, entirely independent of the
Between the presentation of the memorial of 1869
and the one of 1875, public opinion seemed to set in favour of a direct
compulsory system of enforced inspection, and Mr. Henry B. Sheridan, then
member for Dudley, brought in a Bill for placing all the boilers in the
country under the inspection of the Board of Trade. To this measure the
association strongly objected, and instigated the appointment of a Select
Committee to enquire into the whole question of steam-boiler explosions.
Evidence was given before the committee by Sir William Fairbairn, by Mr.
Hugh Mason, our present president, by the late Mr. Charles F. Beyer, member
of our executive committee, and by myself.
The association has now fallen back from any
system of compulsory inspection of boilers when in use, to a searching
investigation of boilers after explosion, with a view of increasing the
owner's responsibility. The question, like many others, has assumed
different phases in different stages.
I have troubled you with this little history of
the association's movement with regard to steam-boiler legislation, as it
seems to me to open a very interesting and important question, and one that
is being raised with reference to the conduct of other of the world's
industries, such as mining, shipping, &c., the problem being how to control
the careless without hampering the careful, and how to save human life and
check recklessness without hampering progress. That questions of such
interest should spring out of the simple subject of boiler inspection might
not perhaps at first be anticipated.
We have at these offices very full illustrated
reports of all the explosions the association has investigated, and which
form a most valuable record.
Lavinston E. Fletcher, Chief Engineer.