Although it is usually Abraham Darby III who gets the credit for the construction of the famous Iron Bridge over the Severn at Coalbrookdale, it was not his idea: that honour goes to Thomas Pritchard, an architect who had begun his working life as a carpenter. That origin explains Pritchard’s design for the 100 foot span, rising to 60 feet above the river, with mortise and even dovetail joints employed.
Darby’s role was, however, of great significance: he financed the enterprise, or at least the overspend (not for the last time such a project going considerably over the original estimate) which left him in debt for the remaining 10 years of his life, toll-revenue notwithstanding. And it was Darby’s family ironworks (his grandfather had discovered the secret of using coke to fire furnaces, an advantage kept from the rest of the world for half a century) which produced the iron that was then formed into the giant components in simple sand moulds (a technique still demonstrated at nearby Blist’s Hill Victorian Museum).
The bridge, which opened to traffic on January 1 1781, proved to builders and civil engineers the strength and suitability of iron for major projects, a major landmark, metaphorically and literally, in the Industrial Revolution. Walking across the bridge today will still give goose-bumps to anyone with even the tiniest feeling for history.
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