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Chrimes watch: ‘Lost’ Telford letters to Scottish scientist recovered by ICE library

Material that casts more light on the career of Thomas Telford, the ICE’s first President is rare, but over the summer the ICE archives have acquired drawings and letters that do just that.

On 29 May Carol Morgan and I attended Bloomsbury Auctions for a rare chance to acquire a collection of five important letters written by Thomas Telford to Professor Patrick Copland of Aberdeen, between 28 October 1801 and March 1802. They discuss various projects Telford was working on, and seek Copland’s opinion.

Telford was, at the time, carrying out surveys of the Highlands and must have met Copland on his travels. Copland was a famous scientist whose lectures regularly attracted audiences of more than 500.

A new approach to design

Initially Telford wrote asking for advice on compass correction for his charts. However, he was soon approached by interests in Aberdeen about a proposed masonry bridge over the Dun. He developed what he believed was a new approach to design, and asked Copland for his views on it from a scientific point of view.

He had used a similar approach when developing his famous cast iron design for London Bridge a little earlier, writing to most of the leading engineers and physicists for their thoughts on the bridge’s practicability.

Unfortunately, Copland’s response is not known, but the description of the bridge design is identical to that used in Telford’s well-known 1808 article on bridges for the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia.

These letters are further evidence that even in an area where he had practical experience of nearly two decades, Telford was seeking to innovate and not follow precedent.

At one level one might view these letters as evidence that Telford lacked the theoretical understanding to design arch bridges with confidence. But this would be wrong. Rather it is further evidence that even in an area where he had practical experience of nearly two decades, he was seeking to innovate and not follow precedent.

The bridge itself was eventually built to the designs of Thomas Fletcher. Copland’s correspondence from Telford was known of but went missing before the 1960s and its content was unclear, even in the auction catalogue.

It was only after examining them and checking Telford’s activities at the time that their significance in casting light on his design methods was revealed.

Acquiring and preserving historical documents

As for the auction, after a nervous but exciting wait during which some lots were sold for way above the estimates, we managed to get the letters for below the predicted price. They were bought with the generous help of the Museum, Libraries and Archives Association (MLA) PRISM Fund.

The ICE Library was awarded MLA designation earlier this year in recognition of its national and international importance.

On a practical note, the designation helps us to obtain grants towards acquiring and preserving some important and rather special historical documents.

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