After a basic schooling, he was apprenticed to a stonemason at the age of 14 and after plying his trade in Edinburgh, he moved to London in 1782.
There he worked on extensions to Somerset House before moving to Portsmouth dockyard two years later. But it was when he was appointed Shropshire's surveyor of public works in 1787 that he really came into his own.
Between 1790 and 1792, he built a fine, masonry-arch bridge over the Severn at Montford, and followed this with the magnificent Pontcysylte aqueduct on the Ellesmere Canal over the River Dee.
The weight of clay required to "puddle" the lofty aqueduct, making it water-tight, would have been excessive, so he hit on the novel idea of using cast-iron plates fixed into the masonry to form a water trough.It is still very much in use today, 200 years later.
An accomplished engineer who produced a prolific number of important roads, bridges and canals during a long career
In 1801, the Government commissioned him to report on Scotland's public-works needs, and as a result he began construction of the Caledonian Canal two years later.
During his career, he built more than 1,000 miles of road and 1,200 bridges. His major achievements included the London-Holyhead road - strategically important and the 579-foot span wrought-iron Menai Suspension Bridge, begun in 1819 and completed seven years later.
He was also responsible for St Katherine's Docks in London (1824-28), and drained large areas of fenland. He died in 1834.