William Fairbairn – The experimental engineer

£ 40.00

Awarded the Association for Industrial Archaeology’s prestigious Peter Neaverson Award in September 2018. The award recognises publications which have made the greatest contribution to the scholarship, knowledge and/or understanding of industrial archaeology


A study in mid-19th century engineering

Hardback     ISBN 978 0 901461 64 3    h = 250mm,   w = 175mm

440 pages including 191 colour and b/w illustrations



William Fairbairn (1789-1874) was one of the greatest of 19th-century engineers yet he is strangely overlooked. This is the first definitive biography for 140 years.

It chronicles Fairbairn’s role in the development, in the UK and abroad, of mills, waterwheels, steam engines, boilers, iron steamships, locomotives, iron bridges, cranes and elevators including:

  • Building some 500 railway locomotives.
  • Constructing over a thousand iron railway bridges, including the first on a main-line railway (the Liverpool & Manchester), and the research for the Britannia and Conway tubular bridges.
  • Invention of the tubular crane, one of which was the most powerful crane of its day and another the prototype of the railway breakdown crane.
  • Experimental work on canal boats, leading him to advise that canals could not compete with railways for passengers.
  • Building early iron steamships, including the Iron Duke – the first to cross the Atlantic.

It provides illustrations for many of today’s current areas of debate, as it discusses the sources of Fairbairn’s success, the extent of his influence and the reasons for the firm he founded failing within a year of his death.

Fairbairn was the leading experimental research engineer of his time; and his Manchester works were an outstanding success, with his trainees producing five professors of engineering and two engineers knighted for their work.

Fully researched and profusely illustrated, the book will appeal to all with an interest in engineering history: academics and non-academics alike.

The author was introduced to William Fairbairn as an undergraduate in Manchester and went on to gain an MPhil and PhD in Fairbairn studies. He remains fascinated by this remarkable engineer.

In September 2018 the Association for Industrial Archaeology gave its prestigious Peter Neaverson Award to Richard Byrom for his publication on William Fairbairn. The award recognises publications which have made the greatest contribution to the scholarship, knowledge and/or understanding of industrial archaeology.  Read the AIA press release here.

“Based on extensive research and written to a high academic standard … Will appeal to a much wider audience, especially those whose interests extend beyond railways to other aspects of engineering history. The Railway & Canal Historical Society is to be congratulated on producing such a well-designed and presented book, which fills an important gap in the history of Victorian engineering.” — Irish Railway Record Society

 “Many people will want to raid Byrom’s book to find out what he has to say on whatever aspect of Fairbairn’s life interests them most. Nowhere will they be disappointed, for this is an immensely thorough and immaculately referenced work. But to be selective will be to miss the strength of Byrom’s connecting themes, particularly about the Manchester engineering culture and the performance of engineering firms. It is 140 years since the first Fairbairn biography was published. This is a far superior successor, which will not be overtaken for many years to come.” — The Structural Engineer

 “This, the first biography of one of the giants of British engineering of the first half of the 19th century for nearly 150 years, is long overdue … This is not a hagiography, Byron is clear about the subject’s shortcomings, but Fairbairn’s significance shines through.” — Institution of Civil Engineers

 “A remarkable book that fills a most important gap in our knowledge of William Fairbairn … The author has achieved a truly comprehensive book about a great engineer, and the Railway & Canal Historical Society is to be congratulated on an excellent publication.” — Stephenson Locomotive Society

“The relatively high price is more than justified by the content … excellent illustrations … large number of notes and references … very useful appendices … highly recommended” — Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway Society