The Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, 1892
William Bell was born at Leith on the 21st of September, 1818. He was educated at the High School, Leith, and afterwards at Edinburgh University, where, in 1839, he gained the gold medal and prize for Natural Philosophy, and was second in Mathematics.
On leaving the University in the following year, he became a pupil of the late John Hammond, then Resident Engineer on the Great Western Railway at Reading, where William Bell had many opportunities of making practical experiments on the working of locomotive engines, and on other subjects connected with mechanical engineering.
In 1842 he was placed by Mr. Hammond with the late John Thornhill Harrison on the Bristol and Gloucester Railway, and was subsequently Resident Engineer on the Cheltenham extension and on the Dawlish contract, which he measured up.
Mr. Bell was next engaged on the waterworks at Clifton. In 1846 he went to Bristol as Resident Engineer, under the late I. K. Brunel, on the Cumberland Basin Docks, a work of no ordinary importance, as the tide rises to a great height.
On the completion of the Bristol Docks he had charge, in 1848, of the Portbury Pier and Railway, and was then employed, in 1850-51, by Mr. Brunel on other engineering works, and on experimental and practical investigations connected with the raising of the large bridge over the Wye at Chepstow, and with the structure of the bridge itself.
In 1852 he was engaged on the Yeovil Branch Railway, from 1853 to 1856 on the widening of the South Devon Railway, and from 1858 to 1861 was Resident Engineer on the Dartmouth and Torbay Railway.
In 1857 he was awarded a Council Premium of the Institution for his Paper ‘On the Laws of the Strength of Wrought and Cast Iron.’ During his residence in Devonshire the sea-wall at Torquay was washed away by a high tide and storm; a new wall was erected under Mr. Bell’s direction, and is at present as sound as when first built.
He obtained at this time the first premium for a competitive plan for the improvement and sewerage of the town of Dartmouth, which plan was subsequently carried out. He also superintended the erection of the gasworks at Paignton.
In 1858 Mr. Bell was employed by Mr. Brunel on various experiments in connection with the Great Eastern steamship before she was launched. In this work he was intimately connected with the late William Froude, F.R.S., and the experiments were in many cases jointly conducted. These investigations are detailed in Mr. Froude’s Paper on the ‘Rolling of Ships,’ read before the Institution of Naval Architects. In this Paper he mentions Mr. Bell as a personal friend, an able mathematician, and an accurate calculator, who not only relieved him of the laborious part of the numerical calculations relating to the ship, but also joined most effectually in the theoretical part of the investigation.
Up to 1864 Mr. Froude was frequently in correspondence with Mr. Bell with reference to rolling investigations, and referred to him for criticism nearly all the MSS. or proofs of the Papers which appeared during that period in the Transactions of the Institution of Naval Architects. Mr. Bell had previously made similar calculations for the caisson gates at Bristol.
When the Atlantic cable was put on board the ‘Great Eastern’ in 1866, he investigated for the late Sir Daniel Gooch the question of the alteration of her periodic time and stability by the addition of cable and tanks; and the cable was stowed in the vessel in accordance with the calculations made by Mr. Bell.
In 1862 Mr. Bell removed to London, where he was engaged on various work for engineers and contractors, and was for some time employed as Secretary by Waring Brothers.
He was afterwards, for a short time, in partnership with the late R. J. Ward.
In 1870, when the Life of Mr. I. K. Brunel was in preparation, Mr. Bell was asked to write some portion of the work. In the Preface to the Life, Mr. Isambard Brunel says: ‘Chapters VII. (on the Bridges) and XIV. (on the Docks) have been written by Mr. William Bell, for many years a member of my father’s engineering staff.’
The results of Mr. Bell’s mathematical and experimental investigations on the strength and strains of bridges are incorporated in his Paper, ‘On the Stresses of Rigid Arches, Continuous Beams, and Curved Structures,’ read before the Institution in 1871, for which he was awarded a Telford Medal and Premium.
Throughout his life Mr. Bell was constantly engaged in experiments and calculations connected with engineering works. For Mr. Brunel he made experiments on the flow of water, on the bursting of water-pipes, on large beams of timber crushed endways by hydraulic pressure, on the strength of iron plates riveted together, on the comparative merits of different kinds of ropes, chains, and wire-ropes, on the consumption of coke, and on the yield and evaporative value of coke produced in different kinds of coke-ovens. He made calculations in connection with the atmospheric system recommended by Mr. Brunel for adoption on the South Devon Railway, and also made a mathematical investigation for Mr. Brunel with reference to a projected iron dome for the Exhibition of 1861.
In 1868 and subsequent years, he was consulted with respect to the bridge across the Hooghly at Calcutta, the Calcutta Docks, and the roof of the market in that city.
In the library of the Institution is a report he made in 1872 to Mr. (now Sir) Bradford Leslie on the Strength of the Cylinders of the Bridges on the Oudh and Rohilkund Railway.
He also made, in 1872, calculations for a gripper, an instrument to be used in raising sunken ships or other bodies.
The last undertaking upon which Mr. Bell was engaged was the Neath Harbour New Works, on which he was Resident Engineer, from 1877 to 1880, for R. P. Brereton. He prepared detailed surveys, set out the works, and superintended their construction, which unfortunately was suspended from financial reasons.
Mr. Bell had been in failing health for some years when he was attacked by bronchitis, from which he never rallied. He died at Streatham Hill on the 20th of January, 1892. He was for many years an Associate of the Institution of Naval Architects, and on the 1st of December, 1863, was elected a Member of this Institution.