Category Archives: Great Engineering Achievements

Bell Rock Lighthouse: Stevenson’s Greatest Work


Every beautifully rugged coastline holds stories of the past and keeps secrets rich with hidden heritage. Shrouded in legend, Inchcape or ‘Bell Rock’ is no exception.

Legend tells the reef of the coast off Angus, Scotland, was so named ‘Bell Rock’ when an Abbot of Arbroath attempted to secure a warning bell to ward off unsuspecting sailors from the dangers hidden in the waves. The bell would ring in storms and high winds, warning seamen from the hazardous reef. Sir Ralph the Rover was a Dutch sea-pirate who envied the fame Abbot had gained from his good work. His desire was to pillage vessels along the coast, and so to put them in more danger and uncertainty he stole the bell, plunging the dangerous rocks once again into silent exposure. Little did Rover know he had sealed his own fate in doing so. One day he too became a victim of the rocks when his vessel crashed into them in the midst of a storm.

The poet Robert Southey captured the legend in a beautiful poem published in 1802. It was published in The Engineer on this day (16th May) back in 1879, and described “as narrated with exquisite grace and graphic power”:

imInchCape Rock Poem

The warning bell referred to in the poem caused the name ‘Inchcape Rock’ to fall into disuse, and become substituted with ‘Bell Rock’, a name chosen for the lighthouse that was to be built there.

Now renowned as the world’s oldest surviving sea-washed lighthouse, Bell Rock (or Inchcape) Lighthouse was built by Robert Stevenson between 1807-1810. It stands in the North Sea, 11 miles east of the Firth of Tay, and watches over Scotland’s wild coast of Angus.

Bell Rock was underwater most of the day with a few hours exception at low tide. Stevenson needed to produce a design that would withstand the wildest of storms and roughest ocean waves, but simultaneously shelter the men working on the structure during the fairer months of the year. Perhaps this remarkable work that’s survived 200 years without adaptation or replacement played a part in it eventually being hailed one of the Seven Wonders of the Industrial World.

London’s Famous Bridges Under Construction

Tope Image: The Tower Bridge 1894| Bottom Image: Copyright © 2005 David Monniaux with permission to reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license –

London’s beautiful skyline has changed dramatically over centuries of development and growth. The Great Tower of London, once the most imposing structure on London’s, skyline, now gives way to the height of The Shard and the striking wheel of the world famous London Eye, outshines it’s much forgotten predecessor – The Great Wheel.

But like The Tower of London, (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site), there are many precious landmarks throughout London that have survived the sands of time. From St Paul’s Cathedral to Westminster Abbey, London’s architectural wonders make outstanding visitor attractions,  as well as enriching examples of our British heritage.

Although lacking the lasting imprint of the St Paul’s and grandeur of  Buckingham Palace, London’s bridges are steeped in history and should be credited for the spectacular feats of civil engineering they represent. The River Thames has, in total, 34 bridges crossing it and many were built and opened during the 1800s, in the height of the industrial revolution.

Below is a quick look at how the magnificent structures of London’s most famous bridges were constructed, and how they look today.

London Bridge: (AD 70, 10th century, 1209, 1831, 1972)

Remarkably there has been a bridge at this site for almost 2000 years. The Romans first crossed the Thames here, and timber bridges were built then and through to the medieval ages until Henry VIII commissioned a stone structure in place of the old. The present London Bridge was constructed during the late 60’s and opened in 1973.

Read more about the London Bridge

Waterloo Bridge: (1817, 1942)

The new Waterloo Bridge we see today is nicknamed the “Ladies Bridge”, because during the Second World War the structure was mainly constructed by women. The original bridge was designed by John Rennie and opened in 1817 as a toll bridge, although reinforcements and repairs led to it being demolished in place for the current structure opened in 1945.

Read more about the Waterloo Bridge

Albert Bridge: (1873, 1884, 1973)

Built as a toll bridge, the two toll booths still stand at each end of the Albert Bridge designed by Rowland Mason Ordish in 1873. Sir Joseph Bazalgette incorporated elements of a suspension bridge in the late 1880s when the bridge became structurally unsound, and in 1973 two concrete piers were added.

 Read more about the Albert Bridge

Tower Bridge: (1894)

Stretching 800ft long, and soaring 213ft high, the Tower Bridge is crossed by 40,000 people a day. It’s prominent towers support two lanes of road traffic and two low level pedestrian walkways. The entire hydraulic system along with the gas lighting system of the bridge was installed by William Sugg & Co.

Read more about The Tower Bridge

Blackfriars Bridge: (1769, 1869)

“In 1865 the old Blackfriars Bridge across the Thames, a fine Portland stone structure began in 1760 and completed ten years later, was being demolished and a new bridge, the ornamented wrought iron, cast iron, granite, Portland stone “Venetian Gothic” structure, designed by Mr Joseph Cubitt, which we have with us today, was being erected.” From The Engineer 1925/02/27

The original bridge was completed in 1770, but the foundations were not substantial enough and the bridge we see today constructed by P. A. Thom and Co was completed in 1869.

Read More about Blackfriars Bridge

Have you taken a photograph we could share?  We’re always grateful for photographs of historic engineering to add to our growing project. 
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Today Walter Brookins Stands Out A Mile

Walter Brookins
“I never think of the danger. I get so interested in what I am doing that I forget my own safety. You would too if you were up there with me, for it is a wonderful sensation.”

We’ve all heard of the Wright Brothers – the Americans from Ohio credited for designing and building the first aircraft. They made the first heavier-than-air human flight in December 1903 and together paved the way for the development of modern aeroplanes. This day back in 1910, however, belongs to the young boy who lived next door to Orville and Wilbur Wright; who’d known the brothers since he was four and who grew up dreaming of the  day Orville Wright would build him his very own aircraft to fly…

Walter Brookins was fascinated by the Wright Brothers. As a boy, he would venture next door to watch them work away on whirring motors and spluttering propellers. His fearless attitude and fierce curiosity at such a young age won the brothers over and it wasn’t long before Orville decided Walter would be the first person he’d train to fly in one of his machines.

Walter or “Brookie” as the Wright family called him, learned to fly in 1909 at the Wright Flying School when he was 20 years old. After only two and a half hours of instruction, he achieved his first solo flight. He used his natural aviation talents teaching others to fly when Orville wasn’t around, and eventually he became an aviation pioneer in his own right. In fact Brookins became the most daring member of the Wright Flyers team in several exhibition flights and meets.

"The Wright flyers put on three thrillers. Walter Brookins, whose name is now written in aviation history, added to his fame by making one of the most sensational short turns ever successfully accomplished. In a short turn exhibition he brought his machine up to such an angle that from the stands it looked like it was standing in end and he would be pitched to the ground one hundred feet below. The game youngster righted his craft with all ease, however and established a record for short turns that it is believed will stand for many a day. It is not believed by Brookins himself that he could ever tilt a biplane to such an angle again and get away with it. The trick made hearts stand still, and even the Wrights were amazed at the young fellow's daring." From The Indianaopolis News June 17th 1910.

On 14th June 1910 he made a world record flight, flying 1,335m high (4,380ft), and later set world records for both altitude and endurance. He smashed his own world record for flying at the highest altitude on July 10th 1910 in New Jersey, when he broke through the clouds 1,882m (6,175ft) high in his Wright biplane.

One hundred and five years ago today, he became the first person in history to fly at an altitude of one mile.

Read more about Walter Brookins and The Wright Brothers on Grace’s Guide.

Amy Johnson: One of the Greatest British Female Pilots

Did you know on this day back in 1903, one of Britain’s greatest female pilots was born?

Amy Johnson (1 July 1903 – 5 January 1941)  was a pioneering English aviatrix that set numerous long-distance records  and became a leading role model for women around the world.

"Believe nothing to be impossible"
“Believe nothing to be impossible”

Born in Hull, to a wealthy fish merchant, she was educated at Hull’s Boulevard Municipal Secondary School and graduated in 1925 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics from Sheffield University.

She was introduced to flying as a hobby, gaining a pilot’s A Licence No. 1979 on 6 July 1929 at the London Aeroplane Club under the tutelage of Captain Valentine Baker. In that same year, she became the first British woman to obtain a ground engineer’s ‘C’ licence.

Her father was one of her strongest supporters. With funds from her father and Lord Wakefield she purchased a second-hand de Havilland Gipsy Moth she named “Jason”, and with Jason she achieved global recognition when in 1930 she became the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia, covering some 11,000 miles.

Only a year later in July 1931, she flew with co-pilot Jack Humphreys from London to Moscow within one day. This was a journey, never achieved before. They continued to Siberia and on to Tokyo, smashing another record time for flying to Japan from England in a de Havilland Puss Moth.

Amy set a solo record from London to Cape Town in 1932, and further record duo flight with her husband Jim Mollison  in 1934 as part of the Britain to Australia MacRobertson Air Race. Her last-record breaking flight was made in May 1936 flying again from London to South Africa.

Amy Johnson tragically lost her life on 5th January 1941 when the Airspeed Oxford aircraft she was flying from Blackpool to RAF Kidlington went off course and crashed into the Thames Estuary.  She was flying in very poor weather conditions and was way off course. Her body was never recovered. Even today there still remains much controversy over the cause of the crash, although in 1999 it was reported she was shot down after failing to give the correct identification code during her flight.

She was a remarkable role-model in the engineering and aviation world inspiring people across the globe.

“I am an ordinary woman who did extraordinary things. The first to qualify as a ground engineer. The first to fly to Australia single-handed. A million people lined the streets of London when I came home. I waved to them from an open-topped car like the queen, the queen of the air.” Amy Johnson

A collection of souvenirs of her was donated by her father at Sewerby Park, Bridlington and The Science Museum, London also has an archive.

Continue to read about Amy Johnson


To celebrate the life and achievements of Amy Johnson, look out for the Amy Johnson Memorial Air Show at Herne Bay this year on Saturday August 15th. The show will feature the world famous Red Arrows and the Battle of Britain Memorial Team amongst other must-see attractions.





Completion of The Eiffel Tower

Eiffel Main126 years ago today on 31st March 1889, the Eiffel Tower of Paris was opened to the public.  It was the tallest building in the world at it’s full height of 984ft and took two years to complete.

The eventful day was covered in detail in The Engineer: -

“COMPLETION OF THE EIFFEL TOWER.- The Eiffel Tower has reached its full height of 984ft., and the French flag hoisted on the crowning mast. The lifts remain to be fitted up and the cupola at the top to be covered over. At half-past two on Sunday the ceremony of hoisting the flag was performed by M. Eiffel, in the presence of M. Berger, several Municipal Councillors, and a few privileged guests. This was followed by a volley of twenty-one shots. Ten or twelve persons only ascended to the little platform above the third one. All the workmen were feasted at one set of tables, and M. Tirard, M. Eiffel, and the invited guests at another. M. Eiffel made a speech, expressing his satisfaction at having that day hoisted the tricolour upon the highest building in the world. 
The Times Paris correspondent says:
"When the proposal was made two years ago to erect the structure, artists and literary men signed a protest against the scheme, declaring that it would disgrace and disfigure Paris, and would destroy the effect of the great monuments of the city, such as Notre Dame and the Louvre. The result has not been what was predicted. Even some of those who protested most loudly against the proposal now admit that the effect of the structure is not what they anticipated. They acknowledge that it has a light and graceful appearance, in spite of its gigantic size, and that it is an imposing monument, not unworthy of Paris."
A commemorative medal will be awarded by the Corporation to each of the workmen, and £40 will be distributed among them. The Exhibition will open on the evening of the 6th of May.”The Engineer April 5th, 1889.
Click on the images below to view the stages of the tower’s construction:

On This Day in 1855…

The Panama Railway dispatched its first locomotive across the Isthmus of Panama


Last year, we celebrated the 100th year anniversary of one of the world’s greatest civil engineering achievements – the construction of the Panama Canal. But it was today, 160 years ago, that the Panama railroad was completed and saw the first train travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean connecting the east to west.

The Panama Railroad was of vital importance for the construction of the Panama Canal, constructed 50 years later. But it was the growing pressures of western immigration that triggered the railway’s dawning.

After the United States claimed California as a result of the Mexican War in 1846, only a trickle of American settlers had made the arduous trek from the east to the western coast. After many shelved ideas and propositions, the United States once again turned its attention to securing a safe and quick link between the Atlantic and the Pacific with the prospective movement of settlers to the west.

Panama was the narrowest crossing between the two oceans and offered the obvious and quickest connection from east to west. In 1847 the Panama Railroad Company was set up to achieve just that, and by 1850 work had begun to lay down the tracks.

The discovery of gold in California one year after the railroad plans were made only heightened the importance of its completion to many prospectors wanting to head west in search for their fortune.

The California Gold Rush of the late 1840s saw thousands of people catch “gold fever” and embark on the adventurous journey to the wild west. By the end of 1848 thousands of excited people from the eastern coast of America to as far as Chile planned big trips to California.

Travellers from the east coast had three travel choices: Travel by sea around the tip of South America, take the shortcut through Nicaragua near Panama, or travel by land.

Travelling by sea around South America’s southern tip of Cape Horn was a very popular route in the early days of the Gold Rush with hundreds of ships embarking on the 13,000 mile voyage. But the trip could last up to eight months and ships were jammed with passengers causing discomfort, scurvy and frustration.

Most people opted to travel by land, but this had to be a carefully planned journey at the right time of year if travellers and their cattle were going to reach the grassy plains before others reached the best grazing lands. Many didn’t make the well marked Oregon Trail without catching cholera from the muddy river waters. Even if they survived disease there was still the punishing Forty Mile Desert to endure and many men, horses and cattle became exhausted and perished before completing their pilgrimage.

A dense jungle, humming with swarms of malarial mosquitoes, the temptingly narrow stretch of Panama awaited any brave traveller heading for the West Coast in search of gold. But many wanted to avoid the tropical diseases of Panama, and so to shortcut the lengthy voyage around Cape Horn, disembarked on the east coast of Nicaragua crossing the Lake Nicaragua to then complete the final leg of the journey in large steamers and carriages to San Francisco.

When the Panama Railroad was finally completed in early 1855, it was a far-reaching transport success that changed the course of history and kick-started a migration of tens of thousands of emigrants to the new gold rich western lands. It was by far the quickest and most comfortable means to get to California and as a result Panama’s economy thrived.

Read detailed accounts of the Panama Railroad in The Engineer journals below:

The Panama Railroad – The Engineer 1902/10/10

The Panama Railroad by Percy F. Martin

*No I – The Engineer 1912/06/14
*No II – The Engineer 1912/06/21

High-Wheelers of the 1870s: The Penny-Farthing Era

James Starley’s Giant Penny Farthing

The penny-farthing is a well-known cliché image of the Victorian age. A bizarre and short-lived velocipede that despite its short window in history, made a great impact in the world of cycling today. These ‘high-wheelers’ or ‘ordinary bicycles’ were the first bicycles with which actual speed and distance could be achieved in a practical manner.

Penny- farthings were contraptions born from the designs of the famous French ‘boneshaker’ – which as the name suggests, was a highly uncomfortable ride.

Envisage hurtling along, poised atop a frame designed of stiff wrought-iron with only iron tires on wooden wheels to provide suspension, and you probably wouldn’t be far off  imagining a French ‘boneshaker’ ride. This was the first type of true bicycle with pedals and they were hailed with the name ‘velocipedes’ ( human-powered land vehicles with one or more wheels), by their manufacturers.

Pierre Lallemant
Pierre Lallemant’s ‘Boneshaker’.

During the early 1870s, English inventor James Starley started manufacturing bicycles based on the ‘boneshaker’ design. He increased the front wheel size to enable higher speeds, and so created the famous penny-farthing.

We’ve all heard of the penny-farthing and many of us have seen pictures of them – the bravest of us can even ride them. But imagine riding one at high-speed along the roughest roads of the late 1800s. Bear in mind, you’ve no means to really brake, there’s every chance you’ll fall off and you’re perched at almost two metres from the ground. They were very dangerous and many succumbed to falling over the handlebars or performing a ‘header’. Despite their obvious risks however,  high-wheelers appealed to the young and wealthy Victorian men who craved the excitement and thrill of such speedy and technically-advanced machines.


The term penny-farthing originated from the comparison of the smaller and larger wheels to farthing and penny coins, referenced a lot in the media as a derogatory word during the 1890s  when the contraptions were almost outdated. Many enthusiasts today may ask you to call them ‘high-wheelers’ or ‘ordinary bicycles’ – a name they were given during the late 1890s to differentiate from the new and up-coming ‘safety bicycles.’

The launch of the Rover Safety Bicycle saw to a halt in the manufacture of the high-wheeled ordinary bicycles by 1893. The ‘Rover’ was lower, the rider sat further behind from the front wheel and so was less prone to fall forward – a common problem with the penny-farthing.  With the development of the Rover’s upgraded chain drivers, higher speeds could be obtained without the large wheel and the high-wheeled bicycle was outdated. From 1895 they were simply known as an ‘ordinary’ or the now-familiar coinage-based term of disparagement – penny-farthing.

Today they stand as a much loved symbol of  Victorian leisure and bridge the early bicycle design with our light-weight road racers today – no doubt with a claim to have helped inspire the birth of cycling as a sport as well.

Read more about the history of the cycle. Or look up cycle manufacturers in our cycle category.

Revival of A Newcomen Engine


Built in 1795, at a cost of £167, the Elsecar Newcomen Engine was used to pump water out of the Elsecar Colliery for the deeper exploitation of coal .

Now nearly 220 years after it was built it sits there still, in the Yorkshire village where it was first installed; said to be one of the most important pieces of industrial heritage in the world.  Henry Ford even offered a blank cheque for its purchase in 1927…

The Newcomen Engine was invented by steam engine pioneer Thomas Newcomen of Dartmouth, South Devon. Combining the ideas of Thomas Savery and Denis Papin his original ideas were probably developed as early as 1710. He was a man described as ‘the father of the Industrial Revolution’.

Only a handful of engines survive. The earliest engines were possibly those erected at Dudley Castle (see image below), St. Newlyn East, and Wheal Vor of Cornwall.

The Newcomen Engine of Dudley Castle erected c1712

The Elsecar Engine was possibly the last commercially-used engine, but it remains unique being the last remaining in its original site; inherited back in 1795 by the Fitzwilliam family for their industrial powerhouse at Elsecar until 1923.  Other than being used as a back-up during the 1930’s, the engine has slowly faded into history, until three years ago when restoration began.

Last month, following the £500,000 restoration project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Barnsley Council and English Heritage, the engine was announced to being back to its original glory.

Visit the Elsecar Heritage Centre to learn more about the mining history of the area and see the Elsecar Newcomen Engine.

Read more about the incredible story of this piece of industrial history that helped paved the way for the industrial revolution on Grace’s Guide.

Sir Nigel Gresley Remembered with a Statue at King’s Cross

Sir Nigel Gresley

Most of us have heard of the famous Flying Scotsman, celebrated ‘Cock O’ the North’ and the record breaking Mallard, but how many people know of the engineer behind Britain’s most famous steam engines?

Born in Edinburgh and raised in Derbyshire, Sir Herbert Nigel Gresley quickly rose from working as an apprentice at the Crewe Works under F. W. Webb to become The London and North Eastern Railway’s first Chief Mechanical Engineer.

He paid extraordinary attention to railway service demands and awareness of locomotive design development, selecting a ‘Big Engine Policy’ for the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) and observing the effect of wind resistance on train performance.

The Flying Scotsman Class A3 locomotive was built in 1923 to be employed on long-distance journeys. Notably it’s now broken two world records for steam traction officially reaching 100 mph on 30th November 1934 and then setting a record for the longest non-stop run by a steam locomotive, running 422 miles on 8th August 1989 while in Australia.

The Gresley Class P2 No 2001 ‘Cock O’ the North’ was completed in 1934 at the LNER Doncaster Works and was the most powerful express steam passenger locomotive ever built for a British Railway.

The A4 Pacific-type demonstrated an aerodynamic design never built before, and in 1938 one train of this type – The Mallard set a world speed record of 126 mph.

This month, it was announced that there are plans to unveil a statue at King’s Cross Station for Sir Gresley. It will stand a proud seven feet tall in the station’s Western Concourse, near to the West Offices where Sir Nigel worked until the outbreak of war.  This memorial will be constructed in cast-bronze by sculptor Hazel Reeves, holding a copy of The Locomotive magazine and accompanied by a mallard – the symbol of his world famous speedy locomotive.

The statue will be unveiled on the 6th April 2016 – marking the 75th anniversary of his death.

References:, and in addition to the Grace’s Guide pages.

On This Day in 1910…

Eugene Ely performed the first shipboard aircraft take-off and landing.

First airplane takeoff from a warship
Image sourced from Ancient US-Navy saylor (uploaded by W.wolny) (US Navy Photo #: NH 77601) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A keen salesman, racing driver and mechanic, Eugene Ely also had natural skills as an aviator that were to fame him as one of the greatest aviation pioneers in history.

Young and ambitious, in the early months of 1910 when he worked for Mr. Wemme as an auto salesman, he taught himself to fly using the Curtiss biplane Mr. Wemme had bought.

After mastering the art of flying the aircraft in only a few months, Ely never looked back.

He flew to Minnesota to attend an exhibition, and it was here he met Glenn Curtiss and became a well-known pilot within the Curtiss Exhibition Team receiving an Aero Club of America pilot’s license, No. 17 on the 5th October 1910.

In the same month, both Ely and Curtiss had made their acquaintance with Captain Washington I. Chambers who had recently been asked by the Navy to identify how the study of aviation could benefit problems in naval warfare. Chambers realised in order to prove aeroplanes could operate at sea, successful take-offs and landings from ships had to be achieved.

Naturally, Ely jumped at this challenge.

On November 14th 1910, Ely’s Curtiss aircraft was hoisted aboard the USS Birmingham at Norfolk before a temporary wooden platform and the ship readied for the experiment at Chesapeake Bay.  It was an unsteady take-off where the aircraft literally plunged off the edge of the ship’s bow. The wheels dipped and skimmed the sea, breaking off one of the propeller blades. Ely managed to steady the aircraft, remain airborne for a further 2 miles, and land safely on the sandy beach at Willoughby Bay.

He became the first man to take-off from a ship and land safely afterwards at just 24 years old with only a few months of flying experience.