Rennie's work on canals, aqueducts, bridges and dockyards mark him as one of the greatest engineers of his age.
Rennie was born on 7 June 1761, the fourth son of a prosperous farmer on the Phantassie estate near the village of East Linton, 20 miles east of Edinburgh. He played truant from school to watch what went on at the local millwright's workshop - run by the celebrated mechanic, Andrew Meikle, the inventor of the threshing machine - and began to work there when he was 12 years old, while continuing his education. He studied at Edinburgh University and then worked for Boulton and Watt, a firm based near Birmingham which manufactured steam engines.
In 1791, Rennie moved to London and set up his own engineering business. His first works were canals, notably the Lancaster Canal (1792 - 1803), the Kennet & Avon Canal (1794 - 1810), and the Royal Military Canal (1804-1909), and also improving the drainage of the Norfolk fens.
Meanwhile Rennie also acquired experience as a bridge designer, using stone and cast iron to produce bridges with daringly wide arches. These included the Lune Aqueduct (1793 - 1797), Kelso Bridge (1800 - 1804), Waterloo Bridge (1811 - 1817), Southwark Bridge (1815 - 1819) and London Bridge (1824 - 1831), which was completed to Rennie's design by his son George after his death.
Rennie also worked on the development of docks and harbours for commercial purposes, including Grimsby (1797 - 1800), Leith (1801 - 1817) and the London Docks (1801 - 1821). His largest projects were the civil engineering works required as the Royal Navy began to build the infrastructure for its century of world domination, including Sheerness Dockyard (1813 - 1821) and the great breakwater at Plymouth (1812 - 1821). Rennie was also commissioned to give advice on other novel maritime structures, notably steam-powered dredgers, diving bells and the famous Bell Rock lighthouse.
Rennie died on 4 October 1821 and was buried in St Paul's Cathedral.
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