Before all of the other great engineers of the industrial era- before Isambard Kingdom Brunel, before Robert Stephenson, before Joseph Paxton, before the Roeblings- there was Thomas Telford, whose birth’s 258th anniversary was marked on August 9th. During his lifetime, Telford set innumerable precedents in the fields of civil and structural engineering. Dubbed “The Colossus of Roads” by his friend and poet laureate Robert Southey, he most notably was the leading figure in an explosion of modern infrastructure that was a foundation for the industrial revolution in Britain. Telford built a network of roads, canals, harbors, and bridges with a mixture of ingenuity, resourcefulness, and elegance that was mimicked by later builders. Though by no means the first civil engineer, Telford was the first president of the Institute of Civil Engineers and can be considered a founding father of the profession as we know it today.
Craigellachie Bridge, Scotland
Before his greatest engineering achievements, Telford rose from rags to riches in a remarkable manner. Born in 1757 to an impoverished family in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, he received only limited schooling before apprenticing as a stonemason. Though masonry was a demanding occupation and Telford remained poor, he managed to obtain and study texts in order to teach himself about construction. By age 25 he was employed as a master mason by an Edinburgh architectural firm. He gained enough experience in construction and management by building docks in Portsmouth to earn the patronage of another Dumfriesshire native: Sir William Pulteney, the richest man in England.
The Montford Bridge in Shropshire
Pleased with Telford’s renovations of his family castle, Pulteney shortly granted Telford commissions to improve infrastructure in several counties, starting with forty bridges and numerous public buildings in Shropshire. Telford proved his skills as a structural and civil engineer in these projects. His first bridges were masonry structures with precisely constructed shallow arches and curving road decks. Later in his life, Telford would look back on his early work with pride- he marvelled in his autobiography at the forty-year lifespan of his “perfect” Montford Bridge, a longevity he humbly ascribed to the workmen.
The cast iron Waterloo Bridge in Betws-y-Coed, Wales
Though his early bridges were made only of stone, Telford was aware that times and technology were rapidly changing and began turning to cast iron in his bridge designs. His 1796 Buildwas Bridge was the first of a series of cast iron arch structures in which he experimented with various trusses. Telford’s highly scientific approach to design incorporated structural analysis that allowed him to determine the most rational and economic ways to use cast iron. His crossings were therefore much more efficient than their more famous predecessor, Shropshire’s “Iron Bridge”, but by no means less beautiful- Robert Southey wrote of one of Telford’s bridges, “I came in sight of something like a spider’s web in the air… and oh, it is the finest thing that ever was made by God or Man!”
Boat on the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
A large portion of Telford’s work was canals. His credits included the Trent and Mersey Canal, the Birmingham Canal, Sweden’s Gotha Canal, and the Birmingham Canal- all in all, hundreds of miles of waterways. The building of the 60-mile Caledonian Canal proved a lifelong task, with Telford having to design countless locks to carry it through the rugged highlands. However, his magnum opus in the field was the Pontcysyllte Canal in Wales, now a world heritage site. The most notable part of this canal is the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, which, when constructed in 1805, was unmatched in scale by any previous work of British engineering. 38 meters high and 307 long, the waterway is supported by nineteen arches made of cast-iron trusses, while the canal itself is ingeniously cased in cast iron panels, the joints between which were caulked with cloth boiled in sugar and sealed with lead.
One of Thomas Telford’s roads near the Menai Bridge
Telford planned and designed thousands of miles of roads, many of which are still in use today, and, more importantly, were used along with his canals to link centers of industry, facilitating the meteoric rise of English manufacturing in the 19th century. Later in his career, he demonstrated his architectural skill, designing tollhouses for his roads and cheap public buildings for underdeveloped regions like the Scottish Isles. To design these roads, buildings, and later stone bridges, Telford took a page out of the book of Renaissance engineers like Brunelleschi and Alberti by excavating Roman ruins for inspiration. However, where the Italians analyzed the classical orders, Telford analyzed the cement and concrete- his research and trials would pave the way for the development of Portland cement.
The Menai Suspension Bridge
Telford’s most ambitious designs were those for long spanned bridges. Early in his career, his conceptual proposal of a gain cast iron arch over the Thames garnered him a lot of attention, but he soon realized that the great spans of the future would not be iron arches but suspension bridges. In the 18th century, suspension bridges were generally small and fragile, but Telford’s design and construction of longer bridges granted them a popularity that has lasted until the present day. Telford’s most famous bridge, which I recently wrote about, is the Menai Suspension Bridge, which was built in 1826 to connect Wales and Anglesey with a 180-meter span. The bridge uses primarily limestone from local quarries and iron worked at Hazeldine’s foundry in Shropshire- an establishment Telford collaborated with throughout his career. Sixteen chains were used to suspend the roadway, each weighing nearly 25 tons and needing to be immersed in linseed oil to prevent rusting. The bridge drew international praise for its groundbreaking design and superb structural aesthetic. It was the first bridge to be recognized as holding the world record for longest span, and thus granted global fame to Telford.
Another of Telford’s suspension bridges, at Conwy in Wales
Telford died in 1834, too soon to fully see the industrial revolution’s contemporary engineering revolution, catalyzed by his own work and that of the Institute of Civil Engineers, which he helped found. However, in death he set one final precedent: recognized by British leaders for his contribution to the island’s infrastructure, he was the first engineer to be buried in Westminster Abbey.
Engraving of Thomas Telford with one of his bridges in the background
First photo from wikimedia commons, by high school engo teacher
Second photo from wikimedia commons, by D Williams
Third photo from wikimedia commons, by Clintheacock66
Fourth photo from wikimedia commons, by Arpingstone
Fifth photo from wikimedia commons, by D22
Sixth photo from wikimedia commons, by Darren Glanville
Seventh photo from wikimedia commons, by Mick Knapton
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