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Smeaton Lecture 2022 – Who designed the Clifton Suspension Bridge

Event organised by ICE

11 July 2022

This event has now ended

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Every modern biographer of Isambard Kingdom Brunel has followed the line taken by his son that Thomas Telford, as adjudicator of the 1829 competition, turned down Brunel’s design in favour of his own. The story goes that he refused to countenance spans longer than that of his own Menai Bridge and therefore turned down Brunel’s design of 1000 feet in favour of his own design.

However, on examining the archives at the Bristol Record Office and Brunel Institute, it becomes clear that this account is entirely untrue, casting an unjustifiable slur on Telford’s reputation to promote the genius of I.K. Brunel.

Delivered by Julia Elton FSA, Engineering Historian and Past President of the Newcomen Society, this year’s lecture will look at the bridges preceding Clifton, putting it in context with contemporary developments. It will examine Telford’s role and give an overview of the many other entrants and their designs and consider the subsequent history of the bridge and its completion in 1864 by William Henry Barlow and Sir John Hawkshaw, comparing their design with Brunel’s unbuilt winning scheme.

Join us on 11 July to hear the true story of Bristol’s iconic bridge and draw out lessons for civil engineers today as they design challenging projects and adapt to developments in technology and technical capabilities.


18:00 - 18:30

Registration and refreshments

18:30 - 18:35

Welcome and introduction by ICE President Ed McCann

18:35 - 19:25

Keynote by Julia Elton FSA, Engineering Historian and Past President of the Newcomen Society

19:25 - 19:55

Q&A session moderated by Ed McCann

19:55 - 20:00

Vote of thanks by Sir John Armitt, President, Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers & event close


Ed McCann

Ed McCann

Expedition Engineering

Senior Director

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Ed McCann

Ed McCann, senior director at Expedition Engineering and Past President at ICE.

Ed graduated from Imperial College London in 1989 with a degree in civil engineering. During twelve years with Binnie & Partners he obtained a master’s degree in hydraulic engineering and worked on some fifty infrastructure projects all over the world.

He joined Expedition Engineering in 2002 where he has been the project director for many projects including the multi award winning Infinity Bridge and the Olympic 2012 Velodrome. He currently works on major projects and programs in the UK and internationally where he focuses on strategic engineering design and improving productivity across the asset lifecycle.

Ed was instrumental in the growth and development of Expedition from a “back bedroom start-up” to Building Magazine’s Engineering Consultant of the Year in 2012.

In 2009, Ed and the two other owners of Expedition set up a social enterprise called the Useful Simple Trust and gave the company to the employees.

He is now a Trustee of the UST, which has a number of award-winning companies specialising in Engineering, Communications Design, Architecture, Education and Sustainability.

Sir John Armitt

Sir John Armitt

National Infrastructure Commission


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Sir John Armitt

Sir John Armitt is the Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission. He is also Chairman of National Express and serves on the Boards of the Berkeley Group and Expo 2020.

In September 2013, Sir John published an independent review on long-term infrastructure planning in the UK. The recommendations in the Armitt Review received widespread support and resulted in the creation of the National Infrastructure Commission in 2015.

After leaving John Laing plc in 1993, where Sir John had been Chairman of Laing’s International and Civil Engineering divisions, he became Chief Executive of Union Railways. In 1997 he became Chief Executive of Costain, a position he held until 2001, when he became Chief Executive of Railtrack (later Network Rail) until 2007. Sir John was also a former President of the ICE.

Julia Elton FSA

Julia Elton FSA

Newcomen Society

engineering historian and past president

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Julia Elton FSA

Julia Elton FSA has spent a lifetime working with rare books and manuscripts relating to the history of engineering. She contributed a chapter to ‘Robert Stephenson: the eminent engineer’ (edited by Michael Bailey) and wrote a number of entries on lighthouse and gas engineers for volumes 2 & 3 of the Institution of Civil Engineers’ Biographical Dictionary.

Julia also prepared the catalogue of the Noble Collection of Brunel papers, housed at the Brunel Institute in Bristol, which laid the foundations for her knowledge of this remarkable, if sometimes controversial, engineer.

Julia is a Past President of the Newcomen Society (the first woman to hold this position) and wrote her presidential address on the development of the Fresnel refracting lighthouse lens. She is a long-standing member of the I.Struct.E. History Study Group and an honorary member of the Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers.

For more information please contact:

Freya Jacobs