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Thomas Telford's 250 year legacy

2007 marks Thomas Telford's 250 Birthday. Mark Alexander asks 21st century engineers to assess his achievements

The celebrations to mark the 250th anniversary of Thomas Telford's birth have been suitably varied and geographically diverse. From an exhibition at the Cromarty Courthouse Museum on the Black Isle in Ross-shire to an anniversary dinner at the headquarters of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) in the centre of London, they reflect the influence of a man who shaped not only the UK's landscape but also engineering as a profession.

It is perhaps fitting that the last of these posthumous events should take place in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. The exhibition, entitled Telford: Father of Modern Engineering, will feature paintings, drawings, photographs and scientific instruments that encapsulate Telford 's life and works. Like so many others, it will attempt to rationalise the achievements of an extraordinary career.

Eighty miles away and 250 years earlier, Thomas Telford was born in the south-west uplands of Scotland. His father, a shepherd, died soon after Thomas's birth and it was left to his mother and the extended family to bring him up. It was hardly the most inspiring surroundings especially for a man who would later push engineering to its limits. Nevertheless, it may have instilled a keen work ethic that he carried to his death 77 years later.

"His life is an inspiration," says Mike Chrimes, head of knowledge transfer at the ICE. "I find it incredible just how much work he did in the last 20 years of his life. It's a period when most people think of retiring, but he didn't stop. His diary for 1833 - the year before his death - shows he was working every day. And it was real work; he was still achieving things."

Indeed, during his swansong period Telford completed the Menai Suspension Bridge in Wales, designed and managed the construction of St Katherine's Docks in London and concluded with the Broomielaw Bridge in Glasgow, which was opened two years after his death. His diligence produced 1,500 miles of roads, 400 miles of canals, numerous cast iron and suspension bridges, churches, docks, harbours, water supply systems and - pertinent as ever - flood-prevention schemes. It's an impressive haul that modern-day practitioners would be proud of, although it only provides the merest glimpse of his contribution to a burgeoning sector. It provides even less of a clue as to the man behind the toil.

"He was very loyal to his friends and very hard working, " says Mr Chrimes, whose responsibilities include looking after the ICE's 100,000-book library. "He was obviously a very likeable person. The Poet Laureate Robert Southey travelled around Scotland with him in 1819 and at the end of the trip described how awful it was to leave Telford . So there must have been genuine warmth to his personality."

The trip left such an indelible mark on the poet that he described Telford as the "colossus of roads", and rightly so. The immense communications project that Southey witnessed would transform the Highlands. The 20-year undertaking included 920 miles of road, 1,000 new bridges, 32 new churches, and, most impressive of all, the Caledonian Canal - a 60-mile stretch of waterway, 22 miles of which were manmade.

The mighty project returned Telford to where his work began nearly 30 years earlier. By 23 Telford had left Dumfriesshire for the thrill of Edinburgh and the crack of the stonemason's hammer, the trade he had been apprenticed to when he was 14 .

He soon relocated to London to work on Somerset House and then on to Por tsmouth where he furthered his educat ion in design and construction. In 1787 he was made Public Surveyor of Works in Shropshire; an appointment that would lead to his first managed project at Shrewsbury Gaol.

His first bridge, which spanned the River Severn, opened for business in 1792 and was followed a year later by a commission to design and construct the Ellesmere Canal. It was a pivotal moment that would result in the iconic Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, one of his most revered achievements.

A steady f low of assignments followed, none being more impressive than the Menai Bridge which was completed in 1826. With projects in the UK and further a field flooding in, Telford was an engineer in demand. It was a powerful position to be in, but it had as much to do with the state of the profession at that time as it did with Telford 's abilit ies.

"There weren't that many leading engineers around, " says Mr Chrimes discussing the master plan for the highlands.

"There was John Rennie and William Jessop. Very little is known about the rest of them. I don't think the government had much choice. They wanted the job done and they needed someone with a lot of knowledge to do it, so he was the obvious choice."

As well as engineering crossings over the UK's waterways and trailblazing new routes for canals and roads, Telford also gave some much-needed credibility to the promising profession of civil engineering. He did it in two ways. Firstly, he was one of the first lead engineers to delegate responsibility for projects to his subordinates, and secondly, he joined the ICE.

Established in 1818, the ICE appointed Telford as its first president, a posit ion he held unt il his death. At the t ime, the organisation was little more than a coffee-house talking shop.

Today, it has 79,432 members and is still growing - last year saw a 19 per cent increase in the number of student members. It's a trend that Telford helped establish through his political clout and society contacts which he used repeatedly to entice new members to the institution. Perhaps his greatest achievement as president, however, was to obtain a Royal Charter for the Institution in 1828.

Unsurprisingly, the Institution's current president has nothing but admiration for his predecessor. "It's a real privilege and a big honour to have the same role as Telford , " says Quentin Leiper, "particularly since I live in Bridgnorth in Shropshire where Telford built his first church. Since Shropshire was really the birth of his career, it's just fantastic."

It is perhaps a measure of Telford 's impact that during the first six months of Mr Leiper's year-long tenure, he has already spoken to 14,000 people, delivered 100 speeches, travelled 35,000 miles and had 160 lunches and dinners.

Changed times since Telford 's day. "The ICE was originally eight people in a coffee shop, " says Mr Leiper. "They wanted more influence with government and other organisations in the UK, so they invited Telford to become their first president. By 1820 they only had 15 members; Telford was the 16th to join. He grew the membersh ip f rom 16 to 320."