Benjamin Baker (engineer)

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Sir Benjamin Baker
Benjamin Baker as a young engineer
Born(1840-03-31)31 March 1840
Frome, Somerset, England
Died19 May 1907(1907-05-19) (aged 67)
Pangbourne, Berkshire, England
CitizenshipUnited Kingdom
EducationApprenticed to Messrs Price and Fox at the Neath Abbey Iron Works
Engineering career
DisciplineCivil engineer
Structural engineer
Projects Forth Bridge, First Aswan dam

Sir Benjamin Baker KCB KCMG FRS FRSE (31 March 1840 – 19 May 1907) was an eminent English civil engineer who worked in mid to late Victorian era. He helped develop the early underground railways in London with Sir John Fowler, but he is best known for his work on the Forth Bridge. He made many other notable contributions to civil engineering, including his work as an expert witness at the public inquiry into the Tay Rail Bridge disaster. Later, he helped design and build the first Aswan dam.

Fellow of the Royal Society Elected Fellow of the Royal Society, including Honorary, Foreign and Royal Fellows

Fellowship of the Royal Society is an award granted to individuals that the Royal Society of London judges to have made a 'substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge, including mathematics, engineering science, and medical science'.

Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh Award granted by the Royal Society of Edinburgh

Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (FRSE) is an award granted to individuals that the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland, judges to be "eminently distinguished in their subject". This society had, in itself received a royal charter in 1783, allowing for its expansion.

Victorian era period of British history encompassing Queen Victorias reign (1837–1901)

In the history of the United Kingdom, the Victorian era was the period of Queen Victoria's reign, from 20 June 1837 until her death on 22 January 1901. The era followed the Georgian period and preceded the Edwardian period, and its later half overlaps with the first part of the Belle Époque era of Continental Europe. In terms of moral sensibilities and political reforms, this period began with the passage of the Reform Act 1832. There was a strong religious drive for higher moral standards led by the nonconformist churches, such as the Methodist, and the Evangelical wing of the established Church of England. Britain's relations with the other Great Powers were driven by the colonial antagonism of the Great Game with Russia, climaxing during the Crimean War; a Pax Britannica of international free trade was maintained by the country's naval and industrial supremacy. Britain embarked on global imperial expansion, particularly in Asia and Africa, which made the British Empire the largest empire in history. National self-confidence peaked.


Early life and career

Cleopatra's Needle from the River Thames, London
Cleopatra's Needle from the River Thames, London

He was born in Keyford, which is now part of Frome, Somerset in 1840, the son of Benjamin Baker, principal assistant at Tondu Ironworks, and Sarah Hollis. [1] There is a plaque on their house in Butts Hill. [2] He was educated at Cheltenham Grammar School and, at the age of 16, became an apprentice at Messrs Price and Fox at the Neath Abbey Iron Works. After his apprenticeship he spent two years as an assistant to Mr. W.H. Wilson. Later, he became associated with Sir John Fowler in London. He took part in the construction of the Metropolitan Railway (London). He was also a key expert witness in the Tay rail bridge disaster of 1879.

Frome Town in Somerset, England

Frome is a town and civil parish in eastern Somerset, England. Located at the eastern end of the Mendip Hills, the town is built on uneven high ground, and centres on the River Frome. The town is approximately 13 miles (21 km) south of Bath, 43 miles (69 km) east of the county town, Taunton and 107 miles (172 km) west of London. In the 2011 census, the population was given as 26,203. The town is the largest in the Mendip district of Somerset and is part of the parliamentary constituency of Somerton and Frome.

Tondu village in Bridgend County Borough, Wales, United Kingdom

Tondu is a village in Bridgend County Borough, Wales, located about 3 miles (4.8 km) north of the town of Bridgend, in the community of Ynysawdre.

Metropolitan Railway underground railway in London

The Metropolitan Railway was a passenger and goods railway that served London from 1863 to 1933, its main line heading north-west from the capital's financial heart in the City to what were to become the Middlesex suburbs. Its first line connected the main-line railway termini at Paddington, Euston, and King's Cross to the City. The first section was built beneath the New Road using the "cut-and-cover" method between Paddington and King's Cross and in tunnel and cuttings beside Farringdon Road from King's Cross to near Smithfield, near the City. It opened to the public on 10 January 1863 with gas-lit wooden carriages hauled by steam locomotives, the world's first passenger-carrying designated underground railway.

He designed the cylindrical vessel in which Cleopatra's Needle, now standing on the Thames Embankment, London, was brought over from Egypt to England in 1877–1878.

Thames Embankment reclaimed area next to the River Thames in central London

The Thames Embankment is a work of 19th-century civil engineering that reclaimed marshy land next to the River Thames in central London. It consists of the Victoria Embankment and Chelsea Embankment.

Egypt Country spanning North Africa and Southwest Asia

Egypt, officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, is a country spanning the northeast corner of Africa and southwest corner of Asia by a land bridge formed by the Sinai Peninsula. Egypt is a Mediterranean country bordered by the Gaza Strip and Israel to the northeast, the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea to the east, Sudan to the south, and Libya to the west. Across the Gulf of Aqaba lies Jordan, across the Red Sea lies Saudi Arabia, and across the Mediterranean lie Greece, Turkey and Cyprus, although none share a land border with Egypt.

He obtained an extremely large professional practice, ranging over almost every branch of civil engineering, and was more or less directly concerned with most of the great engineering achievements of his day.


Original Tay Bridge from the north Original Tay Bridge before the 1879 collapse.jpg
Original Tay Bridge from the north
Fallen Tay Bridge from the north Tay bridge down.JPG
Fallen Tay Bridge from the north

He published a timely book on Long Railway Bridges in the 1870s which advocated the introduction of steel, and showed that much longer spans were possible using this material. The book is remarkably prescient for the way the properties of steel could be exploited in structures.

Tay bridge disaster

In 1880, he was called as an expert witness to the inquiry into the Tay Rail Bridge disaster. Although he was acting on behalf of Thomas Bouch, the builder of the first railway bridge across the Tay, he performed his role with independence and tenacity. His testimony was against the theory that the bridge was simply blown over by the wind that fateful night. He made a meticulous survey of structures at or near the bridge, and concluded that wind speeds were not excessive on the night of the disaster. The official analysis of the failure suggested that a wind pressure of over 30 pounds per square foot was needed to cause toppling of the structure, but he examined smaller structures in the vicinity of the bridge and concluded that the pressure could not have exceeded 15 pounds per square foot on the night of the disaster. Such smaller structures included walls, ballast on the track on the bridge and both signal boxes either actually on or very near the bridge.

An expert witness, in England, Wales and the United States, is a person whose opinion by virtue of education, training, certification, skills or experience, is accepted by the judge as an expert. The judge may consider the witness's specialized opinion about evidence or about facts before the court within the expert's area of expertise, referred to as an "expert opinion". Expert witnesses may also deliver "expert evidence" within the area of their expertise. Their testimony may be rebutted by testimony from other experts or by other evidence or facts.

Thomas Bouch railway engineer

Sir Thomas Bouch was a British railway engineer. He was born in Thursby, near Carlisle, Cumberland, and lived in Edinburgh. As manager of the Edinburgh and Northern Railway he introduced the first roll-on/roll-off train ferry service in the world. Subsequently as a consulting engineer, he helped develop the caisson and popularised the use of lattice girders in railway bridges. He was knighted after the successful completion of the first Tay Railway Bridge, but his reputation was destroyed by the subsequent Tay Bridge Disaster, in which 75 people are believed to have died as a result of defects in design, construction and maintenance, for all of which Bouch was held responsible. He died within 18 months of being knighted.

A street railway in New York 1876 A Street Railway in New York - 1876 engraving.jpg
A street railway in New York 1876

He also said in his statement to the court that he had built over 12 miles (19 km) of railway viaduct, referring to his design of the elevated railroad in New York in 1868, some of which still survives in Manhattan (unused). By this time he had already made himself an authority on bridge construction, and shortly afterwards he was engaged on the work which made his reputation with the general public: the design and erection of the Forth Bridge in collaboration with Sir John Fowler and William Arrol. It was an almost unique design as a large cantilever bridge, and was built entirely in steel, another unprecedented development in bridge engineering. Stiffness was provided by hollow tubes which were riveted together so as to make sound joints. Baker promoted his design in numerous public lectures, and arranged demonstrations of the stability of the cantilever by using his assistants as stage props.

Manhattan Borough in New York City and county in New York, United States

Manhattan, often referred to locally as the City, is the most densely populated of the five boroughs of New York City and its economic and administrative center, cultural identifier, and historical birthplace. The borough is coextensive with New York County, one of the original counties of the U.S. state of New York. The borough consists mostly of Manhattan Island, bounded by the Hudson, East, and Harlem rivers; several small adjacent islands; and Marble Hill, a small neighborhood now on the U.S. mainland, physically connected to the Bronx and separated from the rest of Manhattan by the Harlem River. Manhattan Island is divided into three informally bounded components, each aligned with the borough's long axis: Lower, Midtown, and Upper Manhattan.

Forth Bridge Cantilever railway bridge over the Firth of Forth in the east of Scotland

The Forth Bridge is a cantilever railway bridge across the Firth of Forth in the east of Scotland, 9 miles west of Edinburgh City Centre. It is considered as a symbol of Scotland, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was designed by the English engineers Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker. It is sometimes referred to as the Forth Rail Bridge, although this has never been its official name.

Sir John Fowler, 1st Baronet civil engineer

Sir John Fowler, 1st Baronet, KCMG, LLD, FRSE was an English civil engineer specialising in the construction of railways and railway infrastructure. In the 1850s and 1860s, he was engineer for the world's first underground railway, London's Metropolitan Railway, built by the "cut-and-cover" method under city streets. In the 1880s, he was chief engineer for the Forth Railway Bridge, which opened in 1890. Fowler's was a long and eminent career, spanning most of the 19th century's railway expansion, and he was engineer, adviser or consultant to many British and foreign railway companies and governments. He was the youngest president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, between 1865 and 1867, and his major works represent a lasting legacy of Victorian engineering.

Forth Bridge

Forth Bridge Bb-forthrailbridge.jpg
Forth Bridge
Stability of the cantilever L-gelenktraeger14.png
Stability of the cantilever

With Sir John Fowler, he designed and engineered the Forth Bridge after the Tay bridge collapse. It was a cantilever bridge and Baker gave numerous lectures on the principles which lay behind his design. Thomas Bouch had originally been awarded the contract but he lost it after the Tay Bridge Inquiry reported in June 1880. The bridge was built entirely in steel, much stronger than cast iron. He used hollow steel tubes to create the cantilever, and it was then the largest bridge of its kind in the world. The bridge is regarded as an engineering marvel. It is 8,296 ft (2,529 m) in length, and the double track is elevated 151 feet (46 m) above high tide. It consists of two main spans of 1,710 feet (520 m), two side spans of 675 feet (206 m), 15 approach spans of 168 feet (51 m) and five of 25 feet (7.6 m) ).[3] Each main span comprises two 680 ft (210 m) cantilever arms supporting a central 350 ft (110 m) span girder bridge. The three great four-tower cantilever structures are 340 ft (104 m) tall, each 70 ft (21 m) diameter foot resting on a separate foundation. The southern group of foundations had to be constructed as caissons under compressed air, to a depth of 90 ft (27 m). At its peak, approximately 4,600 workers were employed in its construction. Initially, it was recorded that 57 lives were lost however after extensive research by local historians, the figure has been revised upwards to 98. Eight men who fell from the bridge were saved by boats positioned in the river under work areas. More than 55,000 tons of steel were used, as well as 18,122 m³ of granite and over eight million rivets. The bridge was opened on 4 March 1890 by the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, who drove home the last rivet, which was gold plated and suitably inscribed. A contemporary materials analysis of the bridge, c. 2002, found that the steel in the bridge is of good quality, with little variation.

Cantilever bridge bridge built using cantilevers

A cantilever bridge is a bridge built using cantilevers, structures that project horizontally into space, supported on only one end. For small footbridges, the cantilevers may be simple beams; however, large cantilever bridges designed to handle road or rail traffic use trusses built from structural steel, or box girders built from prestressed concrete. The steel truss cantilever bridge was a major engineering breakthrough when first put into practice, as it can span distances of over 1,500 feet (460 m), and can be more easily constructed at difficult crossings by virtue of using little or no falsework.

The use of a cantilever in bridge design was not a new idea, but the scale of Baker's undertaking was a pioneering effort, later followed in different parts of the world. Much of the work done was without precedent, including calculations for incidence of erection stresses, provisions made for reducing future maintenance costs, calculations for wind pressures made evident by the Tay Bridge disaster, the effect of temperature stresses on the structure, and so on.

Where possible, the bridge used natural features such as Inchgarvie, an island, the promontories on either side of the firth at this point, and also the high banks on either side. The remains of Thomas Bouch's first attempts at his bridge can also be seen on the island.

The bridge has a speed limit of 50 mph (80 km/h) for passenger trains and 20 mph (32 km/h) for freight trains. The weight limit for any train on the bridge is 1,422 tonnes (1,442,000 kg) although this is waived for the frequent coal trains, provided two such trains do not simultaneously occupy the bridge. The route availability code is RA8, meaning any current UK locomotive can use the bridge, which was designed to accommodate heavier steam locomotives. Up to 190–200 trains per day crossed the bridge in 2006. A structure like the Forth Bridge needs constant maintenance and the ancillary works for the bridge included not only a maintenance workshop and yard but a railway "colony" of some fifty houses at Dalmeny Station.

"Painting the Forth Bridge" is a colloquial term for a never-ending task (a modern rendering of the myth of Sisyphus), coined on the erroneous belief that, at one time in the history of the bridge, repainting was required and commenced immediately upon completion of the previous repaint. According to a 2004 New Civil Engineer report on contemporary maintenance, such a practice never existed, although under British Rail management, and before, the bridge had a permanent maintenance crew.

A contemporary repainting of the bridge commenced with a contract award in 2002, for a schedule of work expected to continue until March 2009, involving the application of 20,000 m² of paint at an estimated cost of £13M a year. This new coat of paint is expected to have a life of at least 25 years. In 2008 the total cost was revised upwards to £180M, and projections for finishing the job to 2012.In a report produced by JE Jacobs, Grant Thornton and Faber Maunsell in 2007 which reviewed the alternative options for a second road crossing, it was stated that the estimated working life of the Forth Bridge was in excess of 100 years. [3]

Honours and Old Aswan Dam

Blue plaque in Cheltenham at the site of Baker's former home Sir Benjamin Baker Blue Plaque Cheltenham.jpg
Blue plaque in Cheltenham at the site of Baker's former home

On the completion of this undertaking in 1890 he was appointed Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG), [4] and in the same year the Royal Society recognised his scientific attainments by electing him one of its fellows. In 1892 the French Academy of Sciences recognised the work of Fowler and Baker by the joint award of the Poncelet Prize; Baker received 2000 francs because the prize money was doubled. [5] Ten years later at the formal opening of the first Aswan Dam, for which he was consulting engineer, he was appointed Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB). [6] He served as president of the Institution of Civil Engineers between May 1895 and June 1896. [7] He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1899 [8] and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1902.

Underground railways

Baker also played a large part in the introduction of the system widely adopted in London of constructing underground railways in deep tubular tunnels built up of cast iron segments. He was also involved in an unsuccessful scheme in 1899 proposed by the North West London Railway to build a tube line in north-west London. [9]


Baker was also the author of many papers on engineering subjects. In 1872 Baker wrote a series of articles titled, "The Strength of Brickwork." In these articles Baker argued that the tensile strength of cement should not be neglected in calculating the strength of brickwork. He wrote that if the cement was neglected then several structures of his time should have collapsed.


He died at Pangbourne, Berkshire where he lived in his later years and was buried in the village of Idbury in Oxfordshire. [10]

Related Research Articles

Tay Bridge Wikipedia disambiguation page

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Cable-stayed bridge type of bridge

A cable-stayed bridge has one or more towers, from which cables support the bridge deck. A distinctive feature are the cables or stays, which run directly from the tower to the deck, normally forming a fan-like pattern or a series of parallel lines. This is in contrast to the modern suspension bridge, where the cables supporting the deck are suspended vertically from the main cable, anchored at both ends of the bridge and running between the towers. The cable-stayed bridge is optimal for spans longer than cantilever bridges and shorter than suspension bridges. This is the range within which cantilever bridges would rapidly grow heavier, and suspension bridge cabling would be more costly.

William Henry Barlow British civil engineer

William Henry Barlow FRS FRSE FICE MIMechE was an English civil engineer of the 19th century, particularly associated with railway engineering projects. Barlow was involved in many engineering enterprises. He was engineer for the Midland Railway on its London extension and designed the company's London terminus at St Pancras.

Hungerford Bridge and Golden Jubilee Bridges railway bridge and footbridge over the Thames

The Hungerford Bridge crosses the River Thames in London, and lies between Waterloo Bridge and Westminster Bridge. Owned by Network Rail Infrastructure Ltd it is a steel truss railway bridge flanked by two more recent, cable-stayed, pedestrian bridges that share the railway bridge's foundation piers, and which are named the Golden Jubilee Bridges.

Quebec Bridge Saint Lawrence River crossing bridge, between Quebec City and Levis, Quebec

The Quebec Bridge is a road, rail and pedestrian bridge across the lower Saint Lawrence River between Sainte-Foy and Lévis, Quebec, Canada. The project failed twice, at the cost of 88 lives, and took over 30 years to complete.

Niagara Cantilever Bridge

The Niagara Cantilever Bridge or Michigan Central Railway Cantilever Bridge was a cantilever bridge across the Niagara Gorge. An international railway-only bridge between Canada and the United States, it connected Niagara Falls, New York, and Niagara Falls, Ontario, located just south of the Whirlpool Bridge, and opened to traffic in 1883, it was replaced by the Michigan Central Railway Steel Arch Bridge in 1925.

Barrow Bridge Pratt truss type railway bridge

Barrow rail bridge,, is a pratt truss type of railway bridge that spans the river Barrow between County Kilkenny and County Wexford in the south east of Ireland. This rural landmark with a length of 2,131 ft (650 m) is the longest bridge on the river. It was second longest bridge in Ireland and the third longest rail bridge in the British Isles. Designed by Sir Benjamin Baker and built by the firm of Sir William Arrol. It is known locally as Barrow bridge.

William Arrol British politician

Sir William Arrol was a Scottish civil engineer, bridge builder, and Liberal Unionist Party politician.

Dee Bridge disaster train wreck

The Dee Bridge disaster was a rail accident that occurred on 24 May 1847 in Chester, resulting in five fatalities. It revealed the weakness of cast iron beam bridges reinforced by wrought iron tie bars, and brought criticism of its designer, Robert Stephenson, the son of George Stephenson.

The Norwood Junction railway crash occurred on 1 May 1891, when a cast-iron underbridge over Portland Road, 60 yards (55 m) north-east of Norwood Junction railway station, fractured under the weight of an express train from Brighton to London Bridge.

Tay Bridge disaster bridge collapse and train wreck

During a violent storm on Sunday 28 December 1879, the first Tay Rail Bridge collapsed as a train from Wormit to Dundee passed over it, killing all aboard. The bridge—designed by Sir Thomas Bouch—used lattice girders supported by iron piers, with cast iron columns and wrought iron cross-bracing. The piers were narrower and their cross-bracing was less extensive and robust than on previous similar designs by Bouch.

Box girder type of girder

A box or tubular girder is a girder that forms an enclosed tube with multiple walls, rather than an I or H-beam. Originally constructed of riveted wrought iron, they are now found in rolled or welded steel, aluminium extrusions or prestressed concrete.

Cast-iron architecture

Cast-iron architecture is a form of architecture developed through the use of cast iron. It was a prominent style in the Industrial Revolution era when cast iron became relatively cheap and modern steel had not yet been developed.

David Kirkaldy (1820–1897) was a Scottish engineer who pioneered the testing of materials as a service to engineers during the Victorian period. He established a test house in Southwark, London and built a large hydraulic tensile test machine, or tensometer for examining the mechanical properties of components, such as their tensile strength and tensile modulus or stiffness.

Kaichi Watanabe Japanese bridge engineer

Kaichi Watanabe was a Japanese engineer who studied and worked in Scotland, United Kingdom during the 1880s. He was one of the first Japanese engineers who came to study in the UK. He is best known for his work with Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker in cantilever bridge construction, notably on the Forth Bridge.

TF Carrier was a train ferry introduced by the Edinburgh & Northern Railway, later incorporated into the North British Railway, to cross the River Tay as part of its route between Edinburgh and Aberdeen.


  2. "Plaques". 16 June 2016. Retrieved 2 June 2019.
  3. Forth Replacement Crossing Study Report 5 : Final Report. JE Jacobs Faber Maunsell / AECOM. 2007. p. 24.
  4. "No. 26029". The London Gazette . 4 March 1890. p. 1200.
  5. "INSTITUT DE FRANCE". Engineering: A Weekly Illustrated. Vol. LIV – From July to December, 1892. p. 782.
  6. "No. 27510". The London Gazette . 30 December 1902. p. 8968.
  7. Watson, Garth (1988), The Civils, London: Thomas Telford Ltd, p. 252, ISBN   0-7277-0392-7
  8. "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 5 May 2011.
  9. Badsey-Ellis 2005, pp. 79–83.
  10. Kerrigan, Michael (1998). Who Lies Where – A guide to famous graves. London: Fourth Estate Limited. p. 123. ISBN   1-85702-258-0.


Professional and academic associations
Preceded by
Robert Rawlinson
President of the Institution of Civil Engineers
May 1895 – June 1896
Succeeded by
John Wolfe-Barry