‘Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain’ by Julian Glover

A new biography of one of Britain’s greatest engineers, whose work is still with us today.

9781408837467If ever a man could give hope to those of humble origins it is Thomas Telford. Born into a lowly shepherding family, in a ramshackle farmhouse in the hills of Dumfriesshire, Telford never knew his father, and at school succeeded in learning little more than the basics of the ‘three R’s’. Yet, despite this modest beginning, he went on to become one of Britain’s greatest engineers. So, what’s his story?

In ‘Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain’, the first comprehensive modern biography of Telford, journalist Julian Glover draws on historical anecdotes, letters, records, reports and contemporary accounts to provide a strikingly clear portrait of the man who helped shape Britain. A simple, smiling boy from the south of Scotland, known affectionately as ‘Laughing Tam’, who despite his fame and success, never forgot his roots.

Born in 1757, a time when the industrial revolution was beginning to sweep through Britain, Telford left school at the age of 14 and was apprenticed to a stonemason. The piecemeal work of building new roads and farmhouses on a local estate inspired Telford’s initial interest in structural engineering. He began studying at night, determined to learn all there was to know about construction.

This passion formed a career that spanned almost eight decades. It helped create the basic building blocks of Britain, constructing roads, bridges and aqueducts, facilitating trade and renovating the country for a time of industrial transformation.

Among his most remarkable work was the design of the Menai Bridge in  north Wales, one of the first structures based on the suspension principle. It spanned 180m – the longest such bridge of the era. He was one of the first British engineers to trial such a procedure. At the time, his creations were considered some of the most remarkable in Europe, but perhaps what is most notable is that almost all of his work remains standing – and in use – to this day.

While his influence on the backbone of Britain is obvious, the person behind the engineer is less known, and for some, this may be the most interesting aspect of this book. Telford was a complex man, as his interests and talents were not limited to engineering. While contributing to the industrialisation of Britain, he was also fascinated by the natural landscape, and was actually a keen poet. In his musings, he wrote of the ‘artificial joy’ of towns, preferring the quiet solitude of the country. It may seem somewhat oxymoronic, but even as he built the structures that supported urban life, he did so with a passion to enhance the countryside, not replace it.

The influence of Telford across Britain is well recognised and celebrated. The Institution of Civil Engineers, of which Telford was the first president, continues to celebrate the legacy of his work long after his death. ‘Man of Iron’ keeps with this culture of recognition and celebration by revealing the history of Telford for all to understand and enjoy. It is a beautifully written biography, reading almost as a work of classic literature, rather than a piece of non-fiction.

Glover spares no words in greatly detailing every aspect of Telford’s life, from his poverty-stricken yet somewhat idyllic childhood in the green woods of the Scottish countryside to his vibrant life travelling and working across the British Isles. It is just as easy to envisage a grubby-faced but smiling young Telford stumbling over bracken-rich fields of Eskdale as it is to recall the wondrous unveiling of his remarkable works of civil engineering.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine.

 

Bridges – Christian Menn

 

“In ancient Rome, the highest priests held the title of pontifex, which means builder of bridges. By providing a link between gods and men, these pontifices were indeed builders of spiritual bridges between heaven and earth.”– Christian Menn

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Scheidegger and Speiss, 1st edition 2015, 352 pp, ISBN 978-3-85881-455-5, £70 Hardcover

The humble bridge, while it may not strike you as one of the most exciting topics of conversation to introduce at a dinner party, is without a doubt one of the most significant early feats of structural engineering, which revolutionised travel dating back as far ancient Rome.

Of those involved in modern bridge design and construction, few are more noteworthy than renowned Swiss structural engineer Christian Menn, whose work spanned the latter decades of the 20th century, went on to inspire a generation of future bridge designers, and continued a long-standing tradition of Swiss excellence.

This stunning publication from Scheidegger and Speiss features more than 30 of Menn’s revolutionary designs, both built and unrealised, across 276 full colour and black and white images, with in-depth captions analysing the specifics of each project.

Menn’s text highlights his thinking and philosophy, approaching the circumstances and design process surrounding each individual project, demonstrating the passion and enthusiasm one expects more from an artist than an engineer. The book offers a fascinating insight into not just Menn’s experience as a bridge designer but also the art and history of structural engineering.

While many of Menn’s designs have become landmarks admired for their stunning design work and elegance, some of those displayed within the book will not take the layman’s breath away, instead appearing as those to be driven across and forgotten. Nonetheless each is a spectacular feat of design and engineering, a lifetime of work and passion, and years of combined construction, creating what is truly a work of art in its own right.

This review was first published on online for E&T magazine.