born 7th June 1761, Phantassie, East Linton, East Lothian, Scotland, UK
baptised 17th June 1761, Prestonkirk, East Lothian, Scotland, UK
died 4th October 1821, Stamford (now Rennie) Street, London, UK
buried St Paul's Cathedral crypt, London, UK
A biographical summary
Scotsman John Rennie (senior) dominated the civil engineering profession of his time, with his pioneering ideas and unerring ability to translate them into finished projects. His diverse range of work included bridges, canals, fen drainage, river navigations, docks and harbours. Noted for his thoroughness, he was frequently called upon to adjudicate on the design work of his contemporaries.
As a boy Rennie was fascinated by machinery, and at the age of 12 he began working for millwright Andrew Meikle (1719-1811). Six years later, Rennie established his own millwrighting business and went on to combine a growing workload with academic studies at Edinburgh University.
In 1783, he met James Watt (1736-1819), who later offered him a contract for the installation of Boulton & Watt steam engines, including those at Albion Mills in London, designed by Samuel Wyatt (1737-1807). This project established Rennie's reputation. Wherever motive power was needed, he had an idea for using steam — in mills of all kinds, smithies, ships and even in London's Royal Mint.
Rennie's focus moved to civil engineering when he began working on canals, with the backing of an endorsement from inspirational engineer John Smeaton
(1724-92). The bridge-building for which he is best remembered started with masonry structures over these canals. Towards the end of his career, he designed the granite London Bridge (1831)
that was later famously purchased by American businessmen and re-erected in the Arizona desert.
He also designed iron bridges — then a developing technology. In fact, Britain's longest cast iron span was part of Rennie's Southwark Bridge (1819)
, of which he said, "On the whole nothing in which I have ever been concerned has proved more satisfactory than this bridge"
Rennie's habitual attention to detail and heavy workload drove him to work 12-15 hours a day. He built things to last, which sometimes led to criticism of his work on grounds of size or cost. However, his expertise was recognised by promoters, who knew his name would lend authority to any scheme with which he was associated.
He was invited by Smeaton to join the Society of Civil Engineers (founded 1771, later renamed the Smeatonian Society) and he became a Fellow of the Royal Society, though he declined the knighthood offered for his work on the original Waterloo Bridge. Among his nine children are engineers George Rennie (1791–1866) and Sir John Rennie (1794–1874), both of whom would hold office as presidents of the Smeatonian Society.
Rennie, a lifelong Presbyterian, is described as charming and determined — a man who maintained friendships despite a somewhat short temper. He was one of the greatest civil engineers of his era, and it is a shame how few of his structures remain to remind us of his genius.
Born 7th June, ninth and youngest child (three brothers, five sisters) of farmer and brewery owner James Rennie (c.1715-66) and Jean Rennie (1729-90)
Works for millwright Andrew Meikle (1719-1811), learning the practicalities of mechanics
Attends Dunbar secondary school
Sets up his own millwright business
Studies natural philosophy and practical sciences at University of Edinburgh, where he meets Joseph Black (1728-1799) and John Robison (1739-1805)
Study tour of England, meets James Watt (1736-1819), who later (1784) offers him a contract for installing Boulton & Watt steam engines
Marries Martha Ann Mackintosh (1771-1806), 6th November at Christchurch, Blackfriars Road, Southwark (nine children)
Appointed Surveyor to the Kennet & Avon Canal (built 1794-1810)
Appointed Surveyor/Engineer to the Rochdale Canal (built 1794-1804)
Elected Fellow of the Royal Society
Declines a knighthood
Dies of liver disease, 4th October, at his residence in Stamford Street (London), interred in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral
, Lancashire, UK .... begun 1792
, Lancashire, UK .... 1794-1796
Great Bedwyn Skew Bridge
, Wiltshire, UK .... 1794-1816
, Leith, Edinburgh, UK .... begun 1800
, Borders, Scotland, UK .... 1801-1804
, Kennet & Avon Canal, Wiltshire, UK .... opened 1810
, Devon, UK .... begun 1812
Old Waterloo Bridge
, London, UK .... 1811-1817
, Isle of Sheppey, Kent, UK .... 1813-1821
Old Southwark Bridge
, London, UK .... 1815-1819
, County Dublin, Ireland .... 1817-1821, completed 1836
London Bridge (1831)
, London, UK .... designed 1821, built 1824-1831
Rennie, John (1761-1821), Dictionary of National Biography,
Smith Elder & Co, London, 1885-1900
Andrew Saint, Rennie, John (1761-1821), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, online edn May 2009
Alec Skempton ed., Rennie, John, FRS, FRSE (1761-1821), A Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland, Volume 1: 1500-1830, Thomas Telford Publishing Limited, Institution of Civil Engineers, London, pp.554–569
GB 237 Coll-168, archive of letters written by John Rennie held at Edinburgh University Library, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
John Rennie 1761-1821 / John Rennie 250, guide to exhibition at the Institution of Civil Engineers, London, 2011, available at www.ice.org.uk
Barry M.J. Barton, John Rennie and the drainage of the Witham Fens, Lincolnshire, UK, Proceedings of the ICE: Engineering History and Heritage, Vol.164, 1st Aug 2011, pp.175-187
Cyril Thomas Goodman Boucher, John Rennie, 1761-1821: The Life and Work of a Great Engineer, Manchester University Press, 1963
Mike Clarke, John Rennie and the Rochdale Canal, UK, Proceedings of the ICE: Engineering History and Heritage, Vol.164, 1st Aug 2011, pp.143-154
Peter S.M. Cross-Rudkin, John Rennie and his resident engineers, Proceedings of the ICE: Engineering History and Heritage, Vol.164, 1st Aug 2011, pp.189-196
Richard L. Hills, John Rennie, mechanical engineer, Proceedings of the ICE: Engineering History and Heritage, Vol.164, 1st Aug 2011, pp.131-141
Roland Paxton ed., John Rennie (1761-1821), FRSE, FRS, civil engineer: Contemporary biographical notices reprinted on the 250th Anniversary of his birth, Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh, 2011
Ted Ruddock, John Rennie and Waterloo Bridge, London, UK, Proceedings of the ICE: Engineering History and Heritage, Vol.164, 1st Aug 2011, pp.155-162
Samuel Smiles, Lives of the Engineers, Volume 2, John Murray, London, 1862
Tom Swailes, Southwark iron bridge, London, UK, Proceedings of the ICE: Engineering History and Heritage, Vol.164, 1st Aug 2011, pp.163-173
portrait John Rennie by George Dance, pencil, 1803, NPG 1154
© National Portrait Gallery, London