Lessons in entrepreneurship from Thomas Telford

For thousands of years the only way to cross the Menai Strait to Anglesey from the North Wales mainland was to walk it at low tide, a perilous experience at the best of times, or to make an equally hazardous ferry crossing. But on January 30 1826, as bands played and locals waved flags and cheered, the Menai Suspension Bridge formally opened, the world’s first modern suspension bridge.

Last Saturday, August 10, marked the two hundredth anniversary of when work had begun building the iconic bridge in 1819, led by Thomas Telford. He had been given the task of improving the London to Dublin journey via the Holyhead road, a route that became the A5. Completing the bridge shaved nine hours on the London to Holyhead journey, and was immeasurably safer.

Because of the high banks and fast flowing waters of the Strait, it would have been difficult to build piers on the shifting sands of the seabed, and they would have obstructed navigation. Also, the bridge had to be high enough to allow the passage of the tall ships of the day. In view of this, Telford proposed that a suspension bridge should be built.

Construction of the bridge began with the towers either side of the Strait. Made from limestone quarried at nearby Penmon, they were brought by barge to the site. The towers were of hollow construction, reinforced with metal girders and stanchions inside. The problem of spanning the 600ft Straits was solved by creating sixteen giant chain cables made from iron, each of them weighing 121 tons.

The cables were strung from the towers across the water in huge loops. In order to stop them rusting, the cables were soaked in linseed oil and then painted. The stonework on the towers was finished in 1824, five years after it had begun. Stringing the giant cables took a further two years. The magnificent Menai Suspension Bridge was called the best road built anywhere before the coming of the motor car.

I was about eight years old when I first stood on the bridge where Telford once stood. It was my grandfather, Sydney Brookes, born on Anglesey, who taught me to love the bridge, with it’s industrial history, that produced such a magical sight. This was to be my first encounter with the Scottish stonemason-architect-engineer-entrepreneur, Thomas Telford, and his achievements have stood out in my mind since.

Telford is a role model for any modern day innovator and pioneer, designing and building an enormous chunk of the infrastructure of Georgian and early Victorian Britain, revered by engineers and industrial archaeologists alike. Born at Glendinning, Eskdale, Scotland in 1757, his father John was a shepherd and died in November the same year. He received elementary education at the local school and also helped out with various jobs around the area. He was known locally as ‘Laughing Tam’.

Aged fourteen he was apprenticed to a stone mason, and examples of his work can still be seen in Langholm and Westerkirk areas today. In 1780 he moved to Edinburgh and worked around Princes Street. In 1782 he travelled to London and gained promotion to a first class mason. He then worked in Portsmouth dockyard as a supervisor, where he developed his design and project management skills.

In 1815 he was commissioned to improve the route from London to Holyhead, which included major works such as Waterloo Bridge at Betws y Coed, Nant Ffrancon pass in Snowdonia, and the Menai Bridge. The commission was extended to include the Bangor to Chester road, which involved the headland roads and tunnels at a Penmaenmawr and Penmaenbach, the embankment crossing the Conwy estuary and the Conwy Suspension bridge. The whole commission was completed in 1826.

He constructed the aqueduct at Pontcysyllte, which carries the Llangollen canal across the Dee Valley in a long iron trough. The aqueduct opened only a few weeks after the battle of Trafalgar, with a flag-flying ceremony that echoed the mood of a nation that was being melded together by industrialisation and military victories. Telford was in the vanguard of this movement, building things not for private gain but for progressive purpose, with the clear intent of creating a stronger and more united kingdom.

Telford grew from a poor shepherd boy from the Borders to become a self-made man and an audacious visionary. In his seventy seven years, the iron-willed Telford worked on many ambitious projects, including ninety-three large bridges and aqueducts. He cut the great waterway, the Caledonian Canal, from sea to sea across the top of Scotland. He constructed more than a dozen road schemes in England and Wales.

He was the architect of over thirty churches in Scotland, worked on water works, improved river navigation and devised drainage schemes. Towards the end of his life he surveyed early railway routes, and died in 1834 just as railways were spreading across the country.

Telford shaped the lives of the Victorian civil engineers who followed him and led the Royal Institution which still guides the engineering profession. Almost everything he built is still in use. An intensely private man, Telford never married or had children, but he was an amateur poet who sent his verses to Robert Burns, a contemporary. He was also a friend and travelling companion of the poet laureate, Robert Southey, who came up with his soubriquet – Colossus of Roads.

He was always on the move, hugely energetic, a man in a hurry to get things done. He wasn’t an inventor, but he was brilliant at seeing possibilities in a project, then finding the right people. One of the joys of his work is that pretty much everything he built was beautifully designed and architected, not simply functional. People cared about the beauty of structures then in a way they don’t now – Wordsworth wrote a sonnet about one of his iron bridges.

Telford advanced the art of building in iron, with many of his bridges remaining in use today. He is buried in the nave of Westminster Abbey, known as the man who joined up the kingdom, not only as an engineer, but as an entrepreneur who could take risks, who knew about design, financing, business, and the importance of teamwork to evolve superior engineering feats at a rapid pace.

So as we admire his finest legacy spanning the Menai Strait some two hundred years after the first block went in place, what can we take from the heritage and spirit of endeavour from Thomas Telford, into our C21st entrepreneurial ventures?

Never give up attitude One eminent trait of Telford was that no matter what the obstacle was, he never gave up. Telford was exceptionally motivated and self-driven. Unlike ordinary men, he displayed outright determination to continue and keep moving forward through all disparities. Telford had a clear vision of what he wanted and was wholeheartedly driven to do the right thing in achieving what he desired. Persistence is very important. You should not give up unless you are forced to give up.

Aim for the big picture Telford targeted exceedingly challenging obstacles, ready to take big risks and had no short-term gains in sight. There was a time when no one believed in his ideas, but this did not get his spirits down. He believed in himself.

In the words of Muhammad Ali, Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Telford’s enormous ambition -to do what everyone said couldn’t be done – far exceeded the vision of everyone around him. Doing the impossible starts with having a grand, albeit crazy, vision. He aimed for breakthroughs and the big picture every time. He brought revolutionary thinking into engineering advancement.

Work on the ground level Telford possessed the ability to think at the system level of design. He knew exactly what he wanted and sat with his team, he was the connection between the vision and engineers’ interest. Telford seemed to be a taskmaster but his attitude set the culture of the team and project. He believed in getting his hands dirty by working with the engineers on the ground. This pragmatic style of leadership never goes amiss in a startup.

Belief in self-analysis Telford believed in self-analysis and critical thinking about oneself. He thought that people did not think critically enough – and it is one of the reasons for startup failure, founders often take too many things for granted without enough basis in their business model and market assumptions. Don’t delude yourself into thinking something’s working when it’s not, or you’ll get fixated on a potentially bad solution.

Being a competent engineer requires you to solve complex problems and navigate around difficult situations when they arise, a useful skill for any entrepreneur. There is little structure and lots of complexity in engineering projects that you need to navigate daily, as someone who is running a start up. You have to assess risks and challenges wisely, and pivot when required.

For both engineers and entrepreneurs, reflection and self-conscious analysis are essential. Both need to examine their projects to prototype better solutions, make changes quickly and persevere even if challenges seem great.

Problem Solving skills Perhaps it’s no coincidence that many entrepreneurs started their companies in a garage – from Apple, Amazon to Harley-Davidson. For many, the idea of a garage is synonymous with tinkering, and you can imagine Telford working through different versions of his thinking – given many of his engineering feats were ‘firsts’ in terms of design and solution

Analysing a problem from a “What if… then” point of view allows a startup founder to face a challenge with an open mind and to reach an educated solution. If the solution is not met, the experiment is not a failure; it is simply restarted.

A ‘crystal clear’ massively transformative purpose Not a phrase around at the time of Telford, but it’s a phrase that captures the inspirational work of Elon Musk, and it applies to Telford. Part of Telford’s ability to motivate his team to do great things was his crystal-clear ‘Massively Transformative Purpose’, which drove each of his engineering ventures. Musk’s MTP for Tesla is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy. To this end, every project Telford completed was focused on his vision and backed by a Master Plan. Have a vision, make it happen.

Musk says I try to do useful things. That’s a nice aspiration. And useful means it is of value to the rest of society. Are they useful things that work and make people’s lives better, make the future seem better, and actually are better, too? I think we should try to make the future better.

This is the ideology of Telford, and though basic, it’s actually very rare. Think of the other names we associate with entrepreneurship and innovation this century, they’re people who’ve built amazing operating systems, devices, websites or social-media platforms. Amazing innovations yes, but not with the impact Musk seeks to achieve, or indeed Telford delivered.

Telford was Britain’s greatest civil engineer, who can take the credit for much of the industrial revolution’s sublime architecture. His achievements were truly remarkable. Throughout his life he remained a peripatetic bachelor, hurrying from one job to the next, writing instructions and plans from country inns by candlelight.

The roads and bridges he built carried fishermen to the village and the fish to the cities, built the church in which they prayed, the port which landed the herring, and the harbours from which some of them emigrated to new lives in North America: all of them were his.

Telford had the entrepreneurial spark. He was more than just ideas and allure. Telford was a rare business leader who was interested in mankind as a whole and wanted to explore how engineering could change the world he lived in. The Menai Suspension Bridge is a remarkable testimony to this spirit, and his entrepreneurial endeavours.

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