Who was Thomas Telford?
Thomas Telford was a Scottish civil engineer and architect, famously dubbed as the ‘Colossus of Roads’. He was a trained stonemason and a noted builder of roads, bridges and canals. He came from a very poor family and went on to become the godfather of civil engineering. His vision and creativity were the prime factors behind the architecture of bridges, roads and canals of the 18th century. His designing supremacy was unmatchable and he created some of the finest roads and bridges. He introduced the concept of suspension bridge and also experimented with cast iron to construct the bridges. He was one of the kep people behind the formation of Institution of Civil Engineers and also served as its first President. His constructions established connections among different people and their cultures. People were able to migrate from one place to another through roads and bridges so as to earn a living and lead a better life. He was a visionary who managed to look ahead of his time. He will always be remembered for his magnificent expertise and significant contribution towards the progress of mankind.
Childhood & Early Life
He was born on August 9, 1757 at Glendinning, a hill farm in Eskdale, Dumfriesshire to John Telford, a shepherd and Janet Jackson, a homemaker. He was the only son as his brother died in infancy.
Soon after his birth, his father died leaving them in a state of homelessness and poverty. They took shelter in a relative’s house and he started working at the age of 14 as an apprentice.
He took an apprenticeship as a stonemason in Langholm and helped in building roads and farmhouses in Edinburgh town. Despite his exhausting work for long hours in day, he used to read about construction at night.
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In 1782, he moved to London in search of work. He met an architect, Sir William Chambers, who was working on Somerset House. Sir William was impressed by his knowledge of construction and involved him in designing it.
In 1784, he worked at Portsmouth dockyard as the manager and increased his knowledge on design and management regarding construction projects. He emerged as a sincere disciple of civil engineering from there onwards.
He was appointed to work on renovation of Shrewsbury Castle by his childhood friend and a wealthy man, William Pulteney in 1787. Upon completing his project, William was impressed by his work and made him the Surveyor of Public Works for the Country of Shropshire.
In 1790, he designed the Montford Stone Bridge over the River Severn, one of the 40 bridges he built in Shropshire. It was completed in 1792 earning him the reputation of one of the greatest civil engineers in Britain.
He used iron as the material for construction of the bridge at Buildwas. It was his first attempt at using the metal for this purpose and he managed to create a solid bridge with iron which also amplified his reputation as an engineer.
In 1793, he was appointed as an engineer of Ellesmere Canal which was completed over a span of ten years.
In 1803, he returned to Scotland and took up the work of constructing Calenodian Canal for helping the people of his homeland. It took over a decade to complete and was an engineering success but a commercial failure because it was not large enough to carry steam ships.
In 1819, he proposed the design for Menai Suspension Bridge which was completed in 1826.
In 1820, he became the President of Institution of Civil Engineers, a post which he held for 14 long years until he died.
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Ellesmere Canal construction which started in 1793 proved to be one of his greatest engineering marvels.
He pioneered the use of iron in construction of bridges. On Shrewsbury Canal project, he designed the cast-iron aqueduct at Longdon-on-Tern which was considered one of the greatest achievements of the era.
His notable works also include the construction and renovation of roads which he undertook as the supervisor and architect. He rebuilt the sections of the London to Holyhead road, designed the ‘String Road’ for the Isle of Arran and improved the ‘Glasgow-Carlisle Road’ which was described as ‘a model for future engineers’.
In 1819, he designed the ‘Menai Suspension Bridge’ which was the longest suspension bridge of the time and one of his most notable achievements.
Awards & Achievements
In 1821, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences elected him as a foreign member.
In 1968, a new town in Shropshire was named ‘Telford’ in his honor.
’Edinburgh Telford College’ which was opened in 1968 was also named after him until October 2012, when it was renamed as Edinburgh College.
In 2011, he was one of the seven inaugural inductees to the ‘Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame’.
Personal Life & Legacy
He never got married and had no children.
He was nicknamed as the ‘Colossus of Roads’ by his friend Robert Southey, a poet, because of his numerous constructions of roads and bridges.
He also published poetry between 1779 and 1784 but was not able to gain popularity as a poet.
He died peacefully on September 2, 1834 at his home in London.
In 1788, this famous civil engineer was called to inspect a leaking roof of one of the churches in Shrewsbury, St. Chad’s Church. He suggested the immediate danger of its collapse and within three days, the church collapsed and he gained his reputation as a skilled engineer and architect in the town.