Out and about recently on an early Spring afternoon, I found myself underneath the Dean Bridge in Edinburgh. While much less famous than the two (very nearly three) Forth bridges just along the road, the Dean Bridge is well known to the thousands of drivers, cyclists and pedestrians who cross it every day on their way to West End offices. What is much less known to most of them is that it was one of the last two projects (the other being the Clyde Bridge in Glasgow) carried out by the man who was, arguably, the greatest British engineer ever.
Photo by permission of J Mungall
Thomas Telford, the civil engineer who designed and thereafter managed the construction of the bridge, was born in Glendinning just outside Langholm in the Scottish Borders in 1757. His shepherd father died when Telford was a boy and his childhood had many difficulties. However, he overcame these and went on to design and manage the construction of an impressive array of projects including the Menai Suspension Bridge and 90 odd other large bridges along with many smaller ones. His work also included numerous canals, docks and harbours and he was the engineer and entrepreneurial brain behind the Caledonian Canal.
He was one of the founding members of the Institution of Civil Engineers and in 1818, he was elected as its first President. Almost 200 years later, in 2011, he was one of the seven inaugural inductees into the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame.
In a recently published biography of Telford*, the author and journalist Julian Glover describes him as “…the greatest engineer Britain has ever produced.” That’s a big claim – but one with which I think I agree.
* J Glover, Man of Iron, Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain (Bloomsbury, London 2017)