The Forth Bridge: UNESCO World Heritage Site

As its successful application for UNESCO World Heritage Site status so eloquently states, “No bridge is as distinctive from others as the Forth Bridge from its peers.”

Built as a result of one of history’s most infamous engineering failures and a time of hesitant confidence in British economic prowess, the Forth Bridge stands as a testament to the longevity of rail transport. It is (in my opinion at least) the most beautiful monument of engineering that humans have ever raised.

When it opened, it linked the towns of the Scottish Central Belt with the coalfields and ports of Fife and the north. Strength was the name of the game, with the tapered towers and high degree of structural redundancy meant to withstand the most aggressive winds nature could throw at it without flinching.

Today, the 2.5-kilometre-long bridge is considered a symbol of Scotland and has made countless appearances in popular culture.

The views of the enviable pulpit of the railroad over the water from the rather more austere Forth Road bridge were spectacular, especially as the new millennium approached when a gigantic countdown clock had been mounted on it.

There was no better inspiration to earn a civil engineering degree than to walk under the mighty blood-red beast that stood astride the great estuary separating the north and south of Queensferry, dramatically showing how the most hostile of Scots geography hardly matched the might of the railroads.

Yorkshire roots from the Forth Bridge

Without the 1881 conference held in the city between the North British Railway and the three English railway companies it worked, the Forth Bridge Railway Committee would never have come into being.

The Committee then took the direction of the company railroad recently created Forth Bridge, in which case everything was in place to implement the proposals.

The Scottish civil engineering and construction company Sir William Arrol & Co., commissioned to construct this vast masterpiece, used the best techniques in surveying, design, installation and insurance. Available at the time. 3.2 million pounds later (400 million pounds at 2017 prices), they had completed the world’s first large steel structure and one that would still do its job 130 years later.

Two legendary engineers led the design: John Fowler, born in Sheffield, already famous as chief engineer on the world’s first underground passenger transport line (the Metropolitan Railway in London), was ably associated by Benjamin Baker from Frome, Somerset, also a key contributor to the Met (he would later pioneer the use of cast-iron segments for deep ‘tubular’ tunnels in London and beyond).

Both were the best of the best – Fowler had once been the youngest president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and Baker would be president a few years after the bridge opened – and their collective achievements far surpass others whose names may have remained more familiar.

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