John Rennie: ‘Engineer of many splendid and useful works’ (RCHS)

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In John Rennie: ‘Engineer of many splendid and useful works’ retired civil engineer, Peter Cross-Rudkin, takes an in-depth look at the life and career of John Rennie, one of the leading engineers of the Industrial Revolution, who was to become one of the foremost civil engineers in Great Britain and Ireland. His research has been drawn from numerous sources including the Institution of Civil Engineers Archive, the National Library of Scotland, the Boulton & Watt Collection held at the Library of Birmingham, various county record offices and archives, local history societies, county museums, the British Newspaper Archive and contemporary mentions of him by colleagues.

Born in Phantassie, an agricultural hamlet near East Linton in East Lothian, John Rennie trained locally as a millwright, before starting up in business for himself in Prestonkirk. He studied at Edinburgh University between 1780-1783, during which time he was taught to draw by an Edinburgh surveyor. Afterwards he was employed as a mechanical engineer with Boulton & Watt, a Birmingham firm engineering and manufacturing marine and stationary steam engines, on the understanding that he could take on his own contracts in his free time. His post was for 7 years at the steam-powered flour mill, Albion Mill, in Southwark, London.

In 1788 John Smeaton (a British civil engineer responsible for the design of bridges, canals, harbours and lighthouses) recommended John Rennie as being the best person to carry out a survey on a proposed canal. Whilst he continued working as a millwright, this was to open up a new career direction for Rennie as a civil engineer. His first job, in 1791, was to take over as consulting engineer on the Stowmarket Navigation project in Suffolk, which a year into construction had run into problems. With Rennie’s involvement the project was successfully completed 18 months later and, in 1793, Rennie was appointed chief engineer of the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation, 40 miles away.

Dedicated to his work, Rennie reported on more than 200 separate projects, providing solutions that were both innovative and thorough. He was very versatile, as well as canals, he designed bridges, planned ports and harbours, naval dockyards and sea defences, and worked on land-drainage of fenlands. He designed the old Southwark Bridge, which at 240 ft, was the longest cast-iron span in the world, and his Waterloo Bridge in London (demolished in the 1930s) was praised as the finest masonry arch bridge. He designed for permanence, asserting that long-term costs were justified on technical grounds and this is demonstrated by both the Bell Rock Lighthouse and Plymouth Breakwater which have stood the test of time.

112 illustrations including maps, 90 colour and 22 black & white. Hardback. 208 pages.

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