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  • You are here:ICE

Today’s engineers need windows on the past

For several years, a stroll along the Tyne quays has provided a lively cityscape of old and new engineering and architecture.

Ice portraits chrimes 109 crop

Ice portraits chrimes 109 crop

Mike Chrimes

However, this summer the whole of Newcastle has had a great buzz about it, thanks to the Great Exhibition of the North.

Throngs were to be expected at the major venues, with the welcome return of the Rocket locomotive to the North East. However, the numbers of families visiting small venues like the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers (NEIMME) showed what broad appeal the exhibition has had. The NEIMME library featured exhibits sponsored by the ICE and the other national professional engineering institutions. The smiles of the children, parents, and grandparents in attendance would suggest engineering still has a trans-generational appeal among Geordies and tourists alike. The efforts of those involved in the Year of Engineering and ICE 200 are being rewarded.

Heroic achievements

The Great Exhibition of the North skilfully blends the heroic technological achievements of the past with a vision of the future. With a number of bridges and viaducts in service after more than a century, Newcastle provides many examples of the enduring nature of Britain’s civil engineering heritage. But our understanding of these assets relies on access to archival resources, old drawings and specifications, and maintenance reports, as well as modern digital monitoring techniques.

Eighteenth century records are rare but thanks to financial support from the Friends of the National Libraries, the ICE was able to acquire six contract drawings for the Lancaster Canal at auction this summer.

The canal is a prime example of volunteer-led infrastructure renewal that has enabled the canal network to thrive as a leisure resource over the last 30 years. The original canal stretched from South Lancashire to Kendal, and the northern section is currently under restoration. The Keer aqueduct survives as a listed structure and is typical of the small span aqueduct bridges on the canal.

Rennie projects

The Lancaster Canal was one of John Rennie’s first canal projects, commencing in 1792 when he was only 30 years old. The contract drawings, signed in many cases by Rennie and the contractor, mostly date from 1794. The contractor, John Pinkerton, was one of the most successful of the early contractors.

Having survived in a chest in a Lancaster house for nearly 200 years, the drawings will be made available by the ICE to engineers and historians. As always with early contract documentation, they demonstrate how little guidance was provided to the masons and builders of the canals and early railways. They are testament to Rennie’s ability as a young man, making the transition from millwright to civil engineer.

Mike Chrimes is an engineering historian

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