Today in Technology History

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September 18

Today our subject is a man who contributed mightily to the field of hydraulic engineering.

James Bicheno Francis was born in England in 1815. He quit school in his early teens to work on canal construction projects. In 1833 he moved to the United States.

In America, Francis was hired by a prominent New England engineer. One of the young man's first tasks was to disassemble, study, measure and diagram a locomotive imported from Britain so it could be duplicated in America. (We call that "reverse engineering" today.) When his boss moved away in 1837, Francis took over his position as chief engineer of all the locks and canals in the burgeoning industrial center of Lowell, Massachusetts.

James Bicheno Francis (1815-1892)Francis was just 22 years old when he became the chief engineer in Lowell. He kept that job for more than four decades, eventually managing every aspect of the water that powered Lowell's important textile mills and transported its cargo. He built new canals, waterwheels, dams, locks and reservoirs; under his supervision, Lowell became a major industrial city and the world's most famous waterpower center. Francis judiciously settled water rights disputes between factories. He built flood gates that saved the city from disaster. He designed a firefighting system that included hydrants and sprinklers. He advised and assisted the builders of factories and mills.

Francis's approach to hydraulic engineering was investigative and experimental, making him one of the first engineers to use scientific techniques in industry. He methodically tested materials and meticulously studied data. He developed new formulas for measuring the consumption and flow of water. He also invented a new kind of turbine, known as the "Francis turbine," which is still used today -- including in many of the world's largest hydroelectric power plants.

Francis received several honors during his career, including election to the presidency of the American Society of Civil Engineers. He died on September 18, 1892.

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