Thomas Telford (August 9, 1757 - September 2, 1834) was a Scottish civil engineer who played an instrumental role in opening up the Scottish Highlands to human movement through an extensive building program of roads and bridges as well as the Caledonian Canal. He also designed and managed projects throughout Great Britain including numerous harbor and dock building projects.
Telford was born in Eskdale, Dumfriesshire. His father, a sheep farmer, died when he was just a few months old and the family struggled, though they did have some support from Telford's uncle. The young Telford was educated at the Westerkirk parish school until he was apprenticed to a stonemason at Lochmaben. Leaving within a year, Telford made his way first to Edinburgh, and thence to London.
In London, Telford worked as a common stone mason for the architects Robert Adam and William Chambers. Also while in London, he found a patron and promoter in William Pulteney (born William Johnstone), a wealthy commoner who would find Telford his first major projects. After building an assortment of houses, churches, and castles, Telford was put in charge of building the Ellesmere Canal in Wales in 1793.
At that time, southern Wales was poorly roaded and had few navigable watercourses. However, it was a major source of iron ore and coal, so the development of efficient methods of transport was an important priority. In constructing the Ellesmere Canal, Telford directed the building of two massive aqueducts, still in operation tothis day, for carrying boats and barges. They were the largest such structures built since Roman times.
While still employed in Wales, Telford designed the plans for the construction of a massive suspension bridge across the Menai Straits connecting Wales and Anglesey. The longest bridge in the world at the time, its single span measured 579 feet. The bridge was opened in 1826.
But Telford's major life work was still ahead of him. In 1801, commissioned by the governement of Wiliam Pitt, Telford toured the Scottish Highlands. As a result of his observations, Telford proposed the largest building project in the world up to that time, involving building of roads, bridges, canals, docks, and harbours throughout the Highlands. As a result of this project, the Highlands would finally be opened to human movement and commerce and the Highlands tourist industry would begin in earnest.
Telford's magnum opus would be the Caledonian Canal connecting the Atlantic Ocean with Inverness and built across the Great Glen, a geologic fault line dotted with numerous lochs, includig Loch Ness. When completed, the passage spanned 60 miles (more than 1 - 1/2 times the length of the Panama Canal), including 20 miles of canals and lccks..Its construction took 15 years, iinvolved tens of thousands of labourers, and cost the previously unheard of sum of one billion pounds (about two trillion pounds in current amounts).