Co.Durham, in 1788, Thomas Tredgold was to become an unlikely hero of American
history. Though he spent his early years as an apprentice cabinet-maker, by his
death in 1829 he had established himself as a leading thinker and exponent in
the field of civil engineering; and, thanks to his writings, his ideas and
principles influenced many like-minded individuals for decades after his
demise. Most notably, his theories held great sway in the early days of
railroad construction across North America – which in itself is quite a legacy.
His road to the top was somewhat circuitous. He went from his apprenticeship days to journeyman carpenter in
Scotland. Eventually, he found
himself working in London for his uncle, William Atkinson the architect, during
which time he studied architecture (of course), mathematics and engineering –
much of it in his spare time. But from around 1820 he began writing in earnest –
and on the topics he knew and loved so well: the principles of carpentry, the
properties of materials and, essentially, the science of building.
From 1823, Tredgold became a full-time writer; and during 1825-27 came three important works on the mechanics of that brand new mode of transport: the railways. His final book, The Steam Engine published two years before his death in 1827, was perhaps his most famous, and was reprinted several times in the ensuing decades. Both this and his Practical Treatise on Railroads & Carriages (1825), were pounced upon by American railroad developers of the era as North American pioneers swept into the open spaces of the New World. Many of his recommendations were adopted on an industrial scale, propelling the
boy to an unlikely form of celebrity.
Tredgold’s definition of civil engineering contained the memorable phrase “[civil engineering is] the art of directing the great sources of power in Nature for the use and convenience of man…”. Needless to say, he was an early member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and was its president for a time.
Tragically, he died in London in 1829 aged only 40. It was said that his early demise was due to his general ill health following his years of dedicated study, during which he denied himself proper rest and sleep.