John Rennie the Elder Biography

(Scottish Civil Engineer Who Designed Many Bridges, Canals, Docks and Warehouses)

Birthday: June 7, 1761 (Gemini)

Born In: Phantassie, Scotland

John Rennie was a Scottish civil engineer famous for building canals, harbours, and bridges throughout Britain. Considered to be one of the greatest engineers of his time, Rennie was much respected throughout Britain for his technical brilliance and creativity. One of the sons of a wealthy farmer, he developed an early interest in mechanics. As a young boy he spent much of his time in the workshop of Andrew Meikle, the mechanical engineer credited with inventing the threshing machine. Intelligent and skilled, Rennie had built working models of a windmill, a steam engine, and a pile engine by the time he was ten. Following the completion of his school education he was offered the post of a schoolmaster which he declined in favor of becoming a millwright. After working for a while with Meikle he took up a post as an engineer under James Watt at Boulton and Watt's Soho Foundry in Smethwick. He designed the machinery for Boulton and Watt’s project at the Albion Flour Mills in London in what was one of his earliest major projects. Eventually he set up his own business and turned his attention towards building canals and bridges. He designed and constructed several bridges but is best known for the three bridges he built across the River Thames at London
Quick Facts

Also Known As: John Rennie

Died At Age: 60


siblings: George Rennie

children: George Rennie, John Rennie the Younger

Civil Engineers Scottish Men

Died on: October 4, 1821

place of death: London, England

Cause of Death: Illness

More Facts

education: University Of Edinburgh

Childhood & Early Life
John Rennie was born on 7 June 1761 in East Lothian, Scotland. He was the fourth son of a prosperous farmer.
From a young age he displayed an interest in mechanics and was naturally skilled in this field. He often skipped school to visit the workshop of Andrew Meikle, the local millwright. Meikle was himself a famed person, popular as the inventor of the threshing machine.
John had built working models of a windmill, a steam engine, and a pile engine by the time he was ten and he started working in Meikle’s workshop on his vacations when he was 12.
He received his primary education at the parish school of Prestonkirk Parish Church before moving on to the burgh school at Dunbar.
In 1777, the schoolmaster at Dunbar left to take up another job and Rennie was offered this post. He declined the offer and instead chose to continue working with Meikle. Rennie built a number of corn mills and flour mills near Dundee even before he was 18.
In 1780 he joined the University of Edinburgh where he studied till 1783.
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He began his career as a millwright, and in 1783, took up a job as an engineer at Boulton & Watt, a partnership between the English manufacturer Matthew Boulton and the celebrated Scottish engineer James Watt.
He left for London in 1784 to work on a project for Boulton & Watt. He was made in-charge of the works at the Albion Flour Mills and he designed all of their machinery. Rennie made use of iron instead of wood for the shafting and framing--an innovative concept at that time.
He started his own business in 1791 and expanded into civil engineering as well. He developed a particular interest in the construction of canals and waterways and some of his early projects were Lancaster Canal (started in 1792), the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation (started in 1793), the Crinan Canal (started in 1794).
One of the major canal projects he undertook was the Kennet and Avon Canal which included the Dundas Aqueduct, Caen Hill Locks and Crofton Pumping Station. The work, started in 1794 was completed in 1810.
John Rennie also proved himself to be a brilliant architect blessed with an innate sense of aesthetics. Along with canals he also built a number of bridges and introduced several innovative techniques in bridge building. The Leeds Bridge and the Waterloo Bridge were among the beautiful bridges he built.
He worked extensively on the development of harbours and docks for commercial purposes. He was responsible for the building of West India Dock and Blackwall Dock in London, along with several others. He also helped in making improvements to the harbours and dockyards at Chatham, Devonport, Portsmouth, Holyhead, Ramsgate and Sheerness.
Major Works
John Rennie is credited to have constructed several structurally sound and aesthetically appealing bridges, but the Waterloo Bridge was considered his masterpiece. The granite bridge which had nine arches, each of 120 feet (36.6 m) span, separated by double Doric stone columns, and was 2,456 feet (748.6 m) long was built across the River Thames in London.
Awards & Achievements
John Rennie was elected Fellow of the Royal Society on 29 March 1798.
He was inducted into the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame in 2014.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Martha Ann, daughter of E. Mackintosh, in 1790. The couple had seven children, two of whom George and John, became notable engineers in their own rights.
John Rennie was a very hard working man devoted to his profession. It is believed that the incessant labour and pressures of his work shortened his life. He died after a short illness on 4 October 1821.

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