James B. Francis

James B. Francis
Oxfordshire, England
Fields of study


James B. Francis was a British-born civil engineer who managed the canal system of the planned manufacturing city of Lowell, Massachusetts, and invented the mixed flow reaction turbine.

Francis was born in Oxfordshire, England, in 1815 and apprenticed to his father at the Port Craw Railway and Harbor Works in South Wales. He immigrated to the United States in 1833 and began working for George Washington Whistler on the construction of the Stonington Railroad. In 1834, Francis joined Whistler in a move to Lowell, Massachusetts, where Whistler was hired as chief engineer of the Proprietors of Locks and Canals, which owned the new city’s canal system. Francis was Whistler’s assistant and helped to design a railroad system for New England.

In 1837, Whistler resigned and Francis became the new chief engineer. He soon earned the nickname of “The Chief of Police of Water” thanks to his efforts at scientifically managing Lowell’s canals. He created a sprinkler system for one of the site’s mills and developed a new power canal in the late 1840s—the largest in the world, measuring one hundred feet in width, 1.5 miles in length, and ranging from seventeen to twenty feet in depth. This infrastructure increased water flow by fifty percent.

In the early 1850s, Francis developed more efficient turbines than waterwheels, which could stop turning when exposed to backwater. Francis improved on the Boyden turbine, creating a sideways water wheel that had an unprecedented eighty-eight percent efficiency rate. His mixed flow reaction turbine became the standard for American hydroelectric facilities. For example, twenty-two of Francis-style turbines were installed in the Hoover Dam.

Francis also guided the construction of a massive gate—twenty-seven feet tall, twenty-five feet wide, with a weigh of twenty-one tons—that could be lowered at the facility’s Guard Locks in the event of a catastrophic flood. The gate was put to the test a handful of times, beginning in 1852. It saved the mills and canals, but flooded the homes of people living on the other side of the gate.

Francis later served as a consulting engineer on the Quaker Bridge Dam on New York’s Croton River and on the retaining dam at St. Anthony’s Falls on the Mississippi River. He retired as Lowell’s chief engineer in 1884 but continued as a consultant until 1892.