This year marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of the 6ft 4in tall, Scottish born engineer. An exhibition at the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) from 29 July, will celebrate his life, displaying items such as an original stone from Waterloo Bridge, paintings, plans of work and original note books.
Rennie, apprenticed as a millwright and the first professional engineer to receive a university education, came to England and initially made his mark as the installer of millwork at Albion Mills beside Blackfriars – the first great steam-powered mill in London.
He then began to receive civil engineering commissions. From 1789 he was surveying canals and construction followed on canals such as Stroudwater (1792-93), Lancaster (1792-03), Crinan (1794-09) and Kennet and Avon (1794-10).
Author Samuel Smiles commended his work on the Lune aqueduct on the Lancaster: "It exhibits in fine combination, the important qualities of strength, durability, and elegance in design." He said.
Those qualities were what characterised Rennie’s approach and were reflected in the great bridge and dock designs of the early nineteenth century. Generally, it was Waterloo and Southwark bridges in London that aroused greatest admiration. Waterloo "the finest bridge in Europe" was once described by engineering great Robert Stephenson as "Unrivalled as regards its colossal proportions, its architectural effect, and the general simplicity and massive character of its details."
His great dock schemes – London docks (1801-05), East India docks, Howth and Dun Laoghaire harbours, Plymouth breakwater and Sheerness dockyard, were valued at millions of pounds, and also remain impressive to this day.
Mike Chrimes MBE, ICE Engineering Policy & Innovation Director, said: "John Rennie was one of the leading civil engineers of the early nineteenth century, following John Smeaton and William Jessop and a contemporary of Thomas Telford. He is not as well known today as he ought to be, and it is hoped that this exhibition will contribute to a greater awareness of his outstanding achievements."
The Rennie @250 exhibition will be held at ICE headquarters: 1 Great George Street, Westminster, London SW1P 3AA until 31 August 2011. It is free to attend.