EMINENT ENGINEERS THROUGHOUT HISTORY
Who's the most outstanding engineer of all time? That's an open question with no right or wrong answer, only opinions, theories and opportunities for debate. Thankfully, plenty of engineers had gone before us and paved the path to a modern world that grants us access to so many inventions - inventions that make our lives easier. So whether you agree with my findings regarding the most outstanding engineers, it will at least give you some food for thought.
Although the modern engineering industry owes gratitude to hundreds of innovators over time, those covered in this series have to be the most influential engineers throughout history.
Thomas Telford FRS, FRSE (9 August 1757 – 2 September 1834)
Thomas Telford was a Scottish civil engineer. After establishing himself as an engineer of road and canal projects in Shropshire, he designed numerous infrastructure projects in his native Scotland and harbours and tunnels.
Such was his reputation as a prolific designer of highways and related bridges. He was dubbed The Colossus of Roads (a pun on the Colossus of Rhodes), and, reflecting his command of all types of civil engineering in the early 19th century, he was elected as the first President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, a post he held for 14 years until his death.
The town of Telford in Shropshire was named after him.
On 9 August 1757, Telford was born at Glendinning, a hill farm three miles (five kilometres) east of Eskdalemuir Kirk, in the rural parish of Westerkirk, in Eskdale, Dumfriesshire. His father, John Telford, a shepherd, died soon after Thomas was born. Thomas was raised in poverty by his mother, Janet Jackson (died 1794).
He was apprenticed at the age of 14 to a stonemason. His earliest work can still be seen across the River Esk in Langholm in Dumfries and Galloway.
He worked for a time in Edinburgh, and in 1782 he moved to London where, after meeting architects Robert Adam and Sir William Chambers, he was involved in building additions to Somerset House there. Two years later, he found work at Portsmouth dockyard and – although still largely self-taught – was extending his talents to the specification, design and management of building projects.
Surveyor of Public Works
In 1787, through his wealthy patron William Pulteney, he became Surveyor of Public Works in Shropshire. His projects included renovation of Shrewsbury Castle, the town's prison (during the planning of which he met leading prison reformer John Howard), the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Bridgnorth and another church, St Michael, in Madeley. Called in to advise on a leaking roof at St Chad's Church, Shrewsbury, in 1788, he warned the church was in imminent danger of collapse; it collapsed three days later, but he was not the architect for its replacement.
London–Holyhead Road (1790)
As the Shropshire county surveyor, Telford was also responsible for bridges. In 1790 he designed a bridge carrying the London–Holyhead road over the River Severn at Montford.
The London–Holyhead road over the River Severn at Montford was the first of some 40 bridges he built in Shropshire, including major crossings of the Severn at Buildwas Bridgnorth. The Bridge at Buildwas was Telford's first iron bridge. Influenced by Abraham Darby's Bridge at Ironbridge, Telford observed that it was grossly over-designed for its function, and many parts were poorly cast. By contrast, his bridge was 30 ft (9 m) wider in span and half the weight, although it now no longer exists. He was one of the first engineers to test his materials thoroughly before construction. As his engineering prowess grew, Telford was to return to this material repeatedly.
Ellesmere Canal (1793)
The Ellesmere Canal was a waterway in England and Wales built by Telford to carry boat traffic between Mersey and Severn's rivers. The canal created a link between the Port of Liverpool and the mineral industries in northeast Wales and the manufacturing centres in the West Midlands.
However, the canal was never completed as intended because of its rising costs and failure to generate the expected commercial traffic.
Bridge at Bewdley (1795)
In 1795, the Bridge at Bewdley in Worcestershire was swept away in the winter floods, and Telford was responsible for the design of its replacement. Unfortunately, the same winter floods saw the bridge at Tenbury also swept away.
This bridge across the River Teme was the joint responsibility of Worcestershire and Shropshire, and the bridge has a bend where the two counties meet. Telford was responsible for the repair to the northern (Shropshire) end of the bridge.
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct (1795)
Among other structures, this involved the spectacular Pontcysyllte Aqueduct over the River Dee in the Vale of Llangollen, where Telford used a new method of construction consisting of troughs made from cast iron plates and fixed in masonry. Extending for over 1,000 feet (300 metres) with an altitude of 126 ft (38 m) above the valley floor, the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct consists of nineteen arches, each with a 45 ft (14 m) span. Being a pioneer in the use of cast iron for large scaled structures, Telford had to invent new techniques, such as using boiling sugar and lead as a sealant on the iron connections.
Eminent canal engineer William Jessop oversaw the project, but he left the detailed execution of the project in Telford's hands. As a result, the aqueduct was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009.
Employed in 1803 by the government of Henry Addington
Employed in 1803 by the government to assist in the development of the Scottish Highlands, he was responsible for the Caledonian Canal; harbour works at Aberdeen, Dundee, and elsewhere; and the building of more than 1,450 km (900 miles) of roads, including many bridges. Subsequently, in improving the roads from Chester and Shrewsbury to Holyhead, he built his two famous suspension bridges over the River Conwy and the Menai Strait (Wales).
Menai Bridge in Wales (1819–26)
Thomas Telford's crowning achievement was the design and construction (1819–26) of the Menai Bridge in Wales.
The Menai Strait is a narrow stretch of shallow tidal water about 25 km long, which separates the island of Anglesey from the mainland of Wales. It varies in width from 400 metres from Fort Belan to Abermenai Point to 1,100 metres from Traeth Gwyllt to Caernarfon Castle.
The Conwy Suspension Bridge (1822–1826)
Conwy Bridge, before the construction of Stephenson's tubular bridge
The Conwy Suspension Bridge is a Grade I-listed structure and is one of the first road suspension bridges in the world. Located in the medieval town of Conwy in Conwy county borough, North Wales, it is now only passable on foot.
The bridge is now in the care of the National Trust. It originally carried the A55(T) road from Chester to Bangor
Other works by Telford include the St Katharine Docks (1824–28) close to Tower Bridge in central London, where he worked with the architect Philip Hardwick, the Gloucester and Berkeley Ship Canal (today known as the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal), Over Bridge near Gloucester, the second Harecastle Tunnel on the Trent and Mersey Canal (1827), and the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal (today part of the Shropshire Union Canal) – started in May 1826 but finished, after Telford's death, in January 1835.
At the time of its construction in 1829, Galton Bridge was the longest single-span in the world. Telford surveyed and planned the Macclesfield Canal, completed by William Crosley. He also built Whitstable harbour in Kent in 1832, connecting with the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway with a unique system for flushing out mud using a tidal reservoir. He also completed the Grand Trunk after James Brindley died due to being overworked.
In 1820, Telford was appointed the first President of the recently formed Institution of Civil Engineers, a post he held until his death.
Telford's young draughtsman and clerk 1830–34 George Turnbull in his diary states:
On the 23rd [August 1834], Mr Telford was taken seriously ill of a bilious derangement to which he had been liable … he grew worse and worse … [surgeons] attended him twice a day, but it was to no avail for he died on the 2 September, very peacefully at about 5 pm. When he died, his old servant James Handscombe and I were the only two in the house [24 Abingdon Street, London]. He was never married. Mr Milne and Mr Rickman were, no doubt, Telford's most intimate friends. I went to Mr Milne and, under his direction, made all the arrangements about the house and correspondence. Telford had no blood relations that we knew of. The funeral took place on 10 September [in Westminster Abbey]. Mr Telford was of the most genial disposition and a delightful companion; his laugh was the heartiest I ever heard; it was a pleasure to be in his society.
Thomas Telford is buried in the nave of Westminster Abbey; a statue was erected to him nearby, in St Andrew's Chapel adjoining the north transept.
Throughout his life, Telford had a great affection for his birthplace of Eskdale and its people and, in his will, left legacies to the two local libraries at Westerkirk and Langholm.