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Fairbairn steam crane, Bristol Docks
Prince's Wharf, Bristol, UK
associated engineer
Sir William Fairbairn
date  1875 - August 1878
UK era  Victorian  |  category  Machinery, industrial  |  reference  ST582722
ICE reference number  HEW 861
Bristol's Fairbairn steam crane is notable for its banana-shaped jib of tubular wrought iron. It is the only surviving example of its type, and has been restored to full working order. It is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and a Grade II* listed structure.
The steam crane was built to the design of Sir William Fairbairn (1789-1874), who described his innovation of the curved jib in a lecture On Wrought Iron Tubular Cranes, published in his 1860 book Useful Information for Engineers.
Fairbairn patented his unique design in November 1850 and the patent remained in force until 1875. In 1850-2, the first six of the new cranes had been built at Keyham in Plymouth, Devon, though they were operated manually. A larger model, also at Keyham, was converted to use steam power at some time after 1857.
The Bristol Docks crane was ordered in 1875, after Fairbairn's death, and completed in August 1878 at a cost of 3,600. It remains in its original location, on a rounded promontory in the wall bounding Prince's Wharf.
Its jib construction is based on the strength exhibited by the elongated interlocking vertebrae in a swan's neck, replicated by cellular box girder construction. Its curvature also allows bulky cargoes to be lifted to the full height of the jib making it very efficient. A crane with a diagonal jib or stays cannot lift a large item right to the top, as it tends to collide with the structure.
The Bristol crane can lift loads of up to 35.6 tonnes from ships' holds far more than the 3 tonne capacity of the other 17 cranes in use at time around the city's docks. The crane's 12.2m high jib has a radius of 10.7m and is made of wrought iron plates chain-riveted into a rectangular section tube with 14 cells and a pulley attachment. The iron body of the machine has pairs of windows on each side, and contains the engine, boiler and lower winding apparatus.
The whole structure weighs 122 tonnes. It revolves on cast iron roller bearings and is anchored by a 4.6m diameter cylindrical cast iron column 7.6m long set into a masonry well under the crane. Power is supplied to two twin-cylinder steam engines by a vertical boiler operating at 690kN per sq m (100psi). The larger engine winds the lifting chain, and the other slews (rotates) the crane.
However, as ships became larger, the crane's jib was not long enough to reach and lift out ships' engines or boilers needing repair. In 1890, it worked for just 16 days, making a profit of only 11s 6d (57.5p). Hydraulic and electric cranes, introduced at the docks in 1892 and 1906 respectively, outclassed the Fairbairn model commercially.
Around 1900, the crane's cab was extended with a box on its roof to enclose the top winding drums and gears. During World War II (1939-45), the Fairbairn crane's heavy lifting ability was required again and it made over 2,000 lifts in three years. In 1953, the crane's present boiler was installed it's fourth so far.
In 1972, the crane received Grade II* listing. A year later, in 1973, the docks closed to commercial traffic and Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives took responsibility for the crane. From 1988, it was restored to full working order and is now owned by the M Shed museum (formerly Bristol Industrial Museum).
The Fairbairn crane is used occasionally, such as for removing the engine or boiler from the museum's steam tug. Visitors can see it being demonstrated in steam and rotating on certain days.
Other manual Fairbairn-designed cranes survive but this is the last steam-powered example.
Contractor: Stothert & Pitt, Bath
Research: ECPK
"Obituary: Sir William Fairbairn, Bart., F.R.S., 1789-1874" in Minutes of ICE Proceedings, Vol.39, pp.251-264, London, January 1875
"Useful Information for Engineers" by William Fairbairn, second series, Geological Society of London, Longman, Green, Longman, & Roberts, London, 1860
reference sources   CEH W&W

Fairbairn steam crane, Bristol Docks