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Thomas Telford - Famous Engineer of Bridges, Roads and Canals

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Thomas Telford

Thomas Telford and his Civil Engineering Achievements

The Scottish engineer Thomas Telford became famous for his bridges, roads and canals. He was a shepherd's son born in Eskdale, Dumfriesshire. He became a stone-mason and in 1782 went to London, where he helped to build the new Somerset House north of Waterloo Bridge. In 1784 he worked on buildings in the naval dockyard at Portsmouth, Hampshire, and in 1788 was appointed county surveyor for Shropshire.

He educated himself as an architect and deigned a church at Bridgnorth. In 1795 a flood in the River Severn washed away several bridges and Telford had to replace them. Among his new bridges was a cast-iron one at Buildwas. This was a good deal bigger and stronger than the first iron bridge of all, which had been built few miles downstream in 1779.

In 1793 Telford became engineer for the Ellesmere Canal. This was planned to join the Severn at Shrewsbury with the Dee and Mersey rivers, but it was never completed. Instead of leading the canal across the Vale of Llangollen by using a series of locks to follow the dip of the land, Telford built an aqueduct. This aqueduct at Pont-Cysylltau, Denbighshire, had an iron trough with 19 spans supported by tall stone piers so that the barges using it passed 127 feet above the River Dee.

In 1801 Telford was sent by the government to report on the communications in the Scottish highlands, where there were then few roads. In 1803 he was put in charge of the work and in the next 18 years built nearly 1,000 miles of roads in wild, bleak country, as well as harbour works at Dundee, Peterhead and Banff. He also built some roads and bridges in the lowlands of Scotland, among the finest of which is the three-arch stone bridge over Mouse Water at Cartland Crags, near Lanark. Telford built more bridges in Great Britain than anyone else before or since.

Telford's greatest work in Scotland was disappointing. This was the Caledonian Canal. It took 18 years to build instead of the 7 years he had expected, and by the time it was finished there was no longer any need of it. Telford was also engineer for the Gotha Canal across Sweden. It was completed in 1832.

To improve the link between London and Dublin, the government decided on a new route, with ships sailing from Holyhead, Anglesey. Telford improved the old Roman road called Watling Street between London and Shrewsbury. It is now the modern A5 road. From Shrewsbury to Holyhead he built a new road which is still a main highway. It has no steep hills and includes a fine cast-iron bridge at Bettws-y-Coed. To cross the Menai Strait the road had to be carried high enough to clear the masts of ships. Telford therefore built a magnificent suspension bridge whose 579-foot span was supported by 16 chains of huge iron links. This bridge was opened in 1826 and reconstructed in 1940. Telford also completed the Conway suspension bridge in the same year (1826).

One of Telford's great friends was the English poet Robert Southey (1774-1843). Southey noted that Telford's method of making a road was "first to level and drain; then, like the Romans, to lay a solid pavement of large stones, the round or broad end downwards, as close as they can be set; the points are then broken off, and a layer of stones broken to about the size of walnuts laid over them, so that the whole are bound together". If you compare this method with McAdam's, you will see that Telford's was more expensive. Both methods were excellent for iron-tyred wagons and coaches, although they would be unsuitable for rubber-tyred traffic.

Telford was so busy looking after his various jobs and travelling that he never had a house of his own until he was 64. He was the first President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, which was founded in 1818. Telford was buried in Westminster Abbey in 1834.

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