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The Engineering Revolution

The First Canals

The Bridgewater Canal near Manchester is often regarded as the first canal of the industrial age. This is not strictly true. The first Canal was the Newry Canal in Northern Ireland, which was opened in 1742 – 19 years before the Bridgewater Canal.

And the Sankey Canal, near Liverpool, was opened in 1757.

However, neither of these canals required major engineering works, while the Bridgewater Canal was widely reported as a major engineering achievement.

Surveyed by James Brindley, the canal included an underground section and an aqueduct. It opened in 1761 and, within a year, the price of coal in Manchester had halved.

The Canal Age had begun.

James Brindley

The profession of Civil Engineering was born in the eighteenth century. James Brindley was one of its pioneers.

In 1756 he installed an innovative scheme for draining the Wet Earth Colliery near Manchester. This brought him to the attention of the Duke of Bridgewater, who asked him to work on the Bridgewater Canal. That success made him famous, and he worked on many more canals during his lifetime, including the Trent and Mersey Canal, which linked Josiah Wedgewood's potteries to the world.

In total, Brindley built around 365 miles of canals and created a legacy that survives to this day.

The Profession of Civil Engineering

The first institution for the teaching of civil engineering was established in France in 1747. The first person to proclaim himself as a civil engineer was John Smeaton. Among many other projects, including bridges, piers, and harbours, Smeaton built the Eddystone Lighthouse in 1759.

John Smeaton founded the Society of Civil Engineers in 1771 – the first professional body for civil engineers in the world. The Institution of Civil Engineers, founded in 1818, became the representative and training body for Civil Engineers and its first president was one of the most famous civil engineers of them all – Thomas Telford.

We'll come to him presently, but first, let us take a slight detour.

Sarah Guppy

In the eighteenth century, a woman's place was believed to be in the home. There are very few female key figures in the early industrial revolution, but one woman who did have a significant impact was Sarah Guppy.

Born in 1770, Sarah Guppy was a prolific designer and inventor throughout her life, being responsible for 10 patents. Her most famous invention was that of the chain suspension bridge, which she patented in 1811. Her patent included a novel design for bridge foundations, which Thomas Telford used in the construction of the Menai Suspension Bridge, completed in 1826.

Sarah Guppy did not charge Telford any royalties for the use of her design, believing them to be for the benefit of the public.

She did, however, earn £40,000 from her invention of a device to prevent barnacles from attaching to the hulls of ships. She also invited a type of tea urn with hot plate, and a kitchen fire hood.

Sarah Guppy later became friends with Isambard Kingdom Brunel and advised on aspects of the construction of the Great Western Railway in the 1830s and 1840s. She died in 1852.

Thomas Telford

Thomas Telford was the most famous civil engineer of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

Born in poverty in 1757 in the Scottish Borders, he was apprenticed to a stone mason at age 14 and quickly developed his skills. By the age of 30, he was Surveyor of Public Works in the county of Shropshire with a reputation for the design and management of building projects.

In 1790 he designed his first bridge – the first of nearly 200, including a cast-iron bridge influenced by the design of Abraham Darby's Iron Bridge.

In 1793 he was appointed to design the Ellesmere Canal, the first of several, including the Caledonian Canal from Inverness to near Fort William in Scotland.

He built over 1,000 miles of roads in his lifetime, 200 bridges, around 400 miles of canal, and numerous harbours and docks, including St Katherine's Docks in London. He was also responsible for a design of church, of which 32 were built across Scotland.

In 1829 Telford was called upon to select a design for a bridge across the Avon Gorge in Bristol. 22 entries were submitted, including four from twenty-three year-old Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Telford rejected all of the designs and produced his own. Brunel submitted another design that cost less than Telford's proposal. A second competition was held in 1831, with 13 designs submitted. Telford's designed was rejected as being too expensive, and the contract was eventually awarded to Brunel. Construction of the Clifton Suspension Bridge started in 1831, but the project kept running out of funds and was not completed until 1864 – after Brunels' death.

Thomas Telford died in 1834. He was the greatest of the early civil engineers and an inspiration for many that came after.

Thank you for listening to this lesson. In our next lesson, we move onto scientific revolution.

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Written by

Ross Maynard