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Recognition for Baker, the great engineering publicist

Sir Benjamin Baker, creator of the Forth Railway Bridge, has joined a very select group of engineers to be honoured by the Blue Plaque scheme.

The scheme, now administered by English Heritage, is about to celebrate its 150th anniversary. The plaque was placed on Baker’s London residence where he lived between 1881 and 1894 at 3 Kensington Gate on 21 April.

One can argue it was long overdue recognition for one of Britain’s great engineers. Best known for designing the Forth Railway Bridge, at the time when he was living there, he played a significant role in the development of the London Underground, and designed the Aswan Dam and its first heightening, as well as masterminding the transport of Cleopatra’s Needle from Egypt to the Embankment.

forth bridge human cantilever

forth bridge human cantilever

Visual aid: Human representation of Forth Bridge structure

Mayor of Frome, Kate Bielby, who spoke of that town’s rediscovered pride in one of its most distinguished “children”, unveiled the plaque. Also in attendance was Pippi Goldfinger, who helped curate an exhibition about Baker in Frome in 2009, which involved 2,500 local schoolchildren through associated events. Through the local museum, schoolchildren still learn about engineering through Baker’s achievements.

This seems a fitting legacy for Baker who was one of civil engineering’s great communicators. As well as writing extensively in the engineering press about his ideas for bridge design, strength of materials, tunnelling and underground railways, he gave a number of lectures, illustrated with lantern slides on his great achievements, notably the Forth Railway Bridge. To reach wider audiences, he thought of the human model of a cantilever to illustrate the underlying principles of the Forth Bridge’s design. This marked a step change in public engagement.

Public engagement for Georgian and Victorian infrastructure generally meant private conversations with a select few influential landowners, and a public meeting to raise share capital. As seen in the recent Thames Tideway exhibition in the ICE’s Library, it involves engaging with the public as a whole, understanding its concerns and explaining how it will affect it beneficially.

It would have been a need that Baker, who had to contend with Egyptologists concerns about Aswan, and art critics concerns about the Forth Bridge, would readily comprehend. While Baker’s structures, like Wren’s, are his greatest monuments, it is good to see that the public’s attention will be drawn to his name by this plaque.

Coincidentally, it is a year since a plaque was placed at 74 Shooters Hill Road, the Blackheath home of the Lindley family of drainage engineers, but there are no more in the pipeline. At the ceremony Howard Spencer, historian of the blue plaque scheme put in a plea for more engineers to be suggested by the public as they are currently seriously under-represented. Perhaps a concerted campaign could be mounted to coincide with ICE’s 200th anniversary in 2018.

  • Mike Chrimes is an engineering historian
  • The Tideway exhibition is still available to view here 

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