Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Chrimes watch

Thomas Telford's legacy has suffered in relation to Brunel's, but his aestheticism and innovation means his work survives.

One wonders what Thomas Telford's friends and contemporaries would have made of Brunel 2006? Observing the scale of Brunel mania, would they be wondering how the 21st century's fascination with heritage could do Telford justice?

Or would they observe with bemusement the way in which Telford's reputation has been eclipsed by that of Brunel.

Brunel's rise is almost certainly the result of the relative signi ance given to science and industry of the Victorian age, in schools and the media, and general lack of attention to the great civil engineering achievements of the Georgian period, where the focus is on Anglo-French con cts, and the creation of the US.

Telford, however, is a much more empathetic character than Brunel. Instead of arrogance there is a collaborative spirit.

Telford seems to have been nice to know. Loyal to his friends and roots he was genuinely warmhearted. Robert Southey, poet Laureate, wrote at the end of his 1819 tour with Telford:

'This parting company, after the thorough intimacy which a long journey produces between fellow travellers who like each other, is a melancholy thing.

'A man more heartily to be liked, more worthy to be esteemed and admired, I have never fallen in with; and therefore it is painful to think how little likely it is that I shall ever see much of him again - how certain that I shall never see so much. Yet I trust he will not forget his promise of one day making Keswick on his way to or from Scotland.' Telford's achievements as an engineer are remarkable.

Trained as a mason, in his late 30s he adopted cast iron as a structural material displaying both open-mindedness and a willingness to innovate that is rare. He developed a new aesthetic in cast iron bridge architecture underpinned by economic use of material, the underlying principles of the best modern engineering design - appearance, economy and fit for purpose. Almost all of Telford's major cast iron bridges survive.

Telford was the rst British engineer to design the 'longest span bridge in the world', and perhaps the st engineer in the world to cherish such an ambition. In 1800 he proposed an unprecedented 600ft span in cast iron, in 1814-17 he planned a 1,000ft span suspension bridge across the Mersey at Runcorn, and nally in 1826 the Menai suspension bridge was opened, when Telford was aged 69. That fact undermines Telford's commitment to lifelong learning or CPD. The Menai bridge design underwent several iterations.

Telford's interest in engineering education was undoubtedly one reason he accepted the presidency of the Institution of Civil Engineers, that and a concern for the status of the profession. He therefore became the rst president of the rst professional engineering institution in the world. Without his commitment the ICE would have failed - reason enough for civil engineers worldwide to celebrate his birth.

Fortunately, there is so much to admire in his life story and achievements that this celebration can be shared with the community at large. It is a fantastic opportunity to increase the public's appreciation of the profession. I would like to thank all the readers who got in touch following the last Chrimeswatch of 2006. It was pleasing to learn that rms such as Clancy Docwra are mindful of their heritage.

For those interested in record photographs of civil engineering projects, an exhibition is being held at the CUBE Gallery in Manchester from 18 January to 17 March. Featuring the work of Michael Collins it contains photographs on loan from the ICE archives. The book, Record Photographs, is available from the Thomas Telford Bookshop.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.