Civil engineer. Born the son of a shepherd at Glendinning (on the Meggat Water in Dumfries and Galloway), Telford learned his craft as an apprentice to a stonemason in nearby Langholm, having spent an unhappy few months in a similar role in Lochmaben. He left for Edinburgh in 1780, where he helped build part of the New Town and, two years later, moved to London, working on Somerset House under Sir William Chambers (1723-96). There he met Robert Adam (1728-92) who provided encouragement and left a favourable impression.
With the support of his patron Sir William Pulteney (1729 - 1805), Telford was appointed Surveyor of Public Works for the County of Shropshire and was responsible for the construction of the the Severn Suspension Bridge at Montford (1790) and the Ellesmere Canal in 1793, which established his reputation.
Today, Telford is notable as a builder of a remarkable number of bridges, roads, docks and canals. These include the Bridge over the Atlantic Ocean (the Menai Straits) linking Anglesey and Wales, Dean Bridge in Edinburgh and the Caledonian Canal, together with a scheme of roads and bridges intended to improve communications throughout the Highlands. He was also responsible for the Parliamentary Churches, built across the Highlands and Islands between 1823 and 1830. In addition, he worked in Austria, Germany, Poland, Russia and Sweden.
He was appointed the first President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1820. Telford died in London and lies buried in Westminster Abbey. He is remembered by a roadside memorial in front of the Westerkirk Library at Bentpath, near his birthplace. The new-town of Telford (Shropshire), Telford (Pennsylvania, USA), Telford College in Edinburgh, a publishing imprint of the Institution of Civil Engineers, together with streets in towns such as Falkirk, Fort William, Inverness, Langholm, Linlithgow and Wick are all named in his honour. A notable biography was published in 1867 by Samuel Smiles (1812 - 1904).