Thomas Telford's life was extraordinary: born in the Lowlands of Scotland, where his father worked as a shepherd, he ended his days as the most revered engineer in the world, known punningly as "The Colossus of Roads". He was responsible for some of the great works of the age, such as the suspension bridge across the Menai Straits and the mighty Pontcysyllte aqueduct. He built some of the best roads seen in Britain since the days of the Romans and constructed the great Caledonian Canal, designed to take ships across Scotland from coast to coast. He did as much as anyone to turn engineering into a profession and was the first President of the newly formed Institution of Civil Engineers. All this was achieved by a man who started work as a boy apprentice to a stonemason. He was always intensely proud of his homeland and was to be in charge of an immense programme of reconstruction for the Highlands that included building everything from roads to harbours and even designing churches. He was unquestionably one of Britain's finest engineers, able to take his place alongside giants such as Brunel. He was also a man of culture, even though he had only a rudimentary education.As a mason in his early days he had worked alongside some of the greatest architects of the day, such as William Chambers and Robert Adams, and when he was appointed County Surveyor for Shropshire early in his career, he had the opportunity to practice those skills himself, designing two imposing churches in the county and overseeing the renovation of Shrewsbury Castle.
Even as a boy, he had developed a love of literature and throughout his life wrote poetry and became a close friend of the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey. He was a man of many talents, who rose to the very top of his profession but never forgot his roots: he kept his old masons' tools with him to the end of his days. There are few official monuments to this great man, but he has no need of them: the true monuments are the structures that he left behind that speak of a man who brought about a revolution in transport and civil engineering.
Anthony Burton has been writing about the history of technology for many years, beginning with The Canal Builders, first published in 1972 and shortly to appear in its fifth edition. He has also written biographies of two of the other leading figures of the age, Josiah Wedgwood and Richard Trevithick.