Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame

Menai Bridge

Telford's Menai Bridge.

Thomas TelfordThomas Telford (1757-1834), engineer whose works connected the United Kingdom, accelerating growth of trade and commerce

Engineering achievements

Telford was undoubtedly one of the greatest civil engineers of all time. His development of infrastructure in the Scottish Highlands created trade and wealth opportunities for what had been a remote and impoverished part of the nation. His works achieved more than treaties in creating a viable United Kingdom. Pontcsyllte Aqueduct was the supreme structural achievement of the canal age and "the most impressive work of art" ever seen by Sir Walter Scott. His cast-iron bridges such as Craigellachie reached unprecedented standards of economy and elegance. He took the art of bridge design to new levels, with the epoch-making Menai Suspension Bridge. His practical approach, underpinned with theoretical acuity (in advance of modern structural mechanics) and evidence through experimentation, earned him the respect of engineers worldwide. He was the obvious choice as first President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, a position he held for the last 14 years of his life.

His Life

Age Event Year
Born 9th August in Glendinning, Westerkirk, Dumfriesshire, son of a shepherd, John Telford and of Janet Jackson 1757
15 Apprenticed to a local stonemason, initially Lochmaben, then at Langholm 1772
30 Appointed Surveyor of Public Works, Shropshire 1787
33 Advised on improvements to Fishing Harbours in northern Scotland 1790
36 Appointed Engineer for the Ellesmere Canal, including Pontcsyllte Aqueduct 1793
44 Devised a masterplan for improving communications to the Scottish Highlands 1801
45 Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 31st January 1803
46 Work began on the Caledonian Canal to Telford's design and under his supervision 1803
51 Appointed Engineer for the Gotha Canal, Sweden 1808
52 Awarded knighthood of the Swedish Order of Vasa 1809
58 Work began on Holyhead Road (London to Bangor) 1815
62 Designed the Menai Suspension bridge, longest span in the world when completed 1819
63 Appointed first President of the Institution of Civil Engineers 1820
64 Elected as a foreign member to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 1821
Labelled "The Colossus of Roads" by Robert Southey, later Poet Laureate
67 Work began on St Katherine's Docks, London 1824
68 Work began on Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal 1825
70 Elected Fellow of the Royal Society 1827
72 Work began on Dean Bridge, Edinburgh 1829
76 Work began on Broomielaw Bridge, Glasgow 1833
77 Died 2nd September. Buried in Westminster Abbey 1834

His Legacy

Telford's greatest legacies are his many works of civil engineering still in use today, remarkable for their longevity and utility. Ellesmere Canal is now a World Heritage Site. Many of his canals, roads, bridges, docks, harbours, water supply schemes and even churches, remain in use some 200 years after their conception. He encouraged engineering excellence through the Institution of Civil Engineers, and his development of sound contract procedures greatly improved the governance and management of major engineering works. Telford new town is named after him.

More Information

Life of Thomas Telford, Civil Engineer, J Rickman (ed) (1838);
Review of Life of Thomas Telford, R Southey, Quarterly Review, Jan-Mar 1839
Lives of the Engineers, S Smiles (1861);
The Story of Telford, Sir A Gibb (1935);
Thomas Telford, LTC Rolt (1958);
Thomas Telford: Engineer, AE Penfold (ed) (1980);
Thomas Telford in Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain & Ireland (2002).
The Industrial Archaeology of Scotland - 2 - The Highlands and Islands Hume JR (1977) London
Telford Collection, Ironbridge;
Telford mss in: ICE archives; PRO; National Archives Scotland.
Statue outside civic centre in Telford new town
Statue by EH Baily erected in 1839 in St Andrew's Chapel, Westminster Abbey.
Thomas Telford Memorial, Bentpath, erected 1928, listed 1971 (relocated 1979)
A cairn with plaque at Glendinning is close to Telford's birthplace.
There are 11 portraits of Thomas Telford held in the National Portrait Gallery
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry (full text available to subscribers and UK library members)

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