He needed a cheap and reliable way to carry his coals from Worsley to Manchester and in 1759 he finally obtained an Act of Parliament for a canal.
The duke's original idea was to dig his cut following the North bank of the Irwell, but he later changed the goalposts and carried his canal over the river on the Barton aqueduct before turning east and entering Manchester at Castlefields.
The Mersey and Irwell proprietors soon discovered what he was up to, but it was too late to stop him. Another Act of Parliament allowed him to dig westwards as well, and his navvies were soon heading for Runcorn so the Bridgewater Canal could connect Manchester with the open estuary of the Mersey, putting him in life-or-death competition with the river navigation.This connection was finally made in January, 1776, and the fact that it ran to the South of the Mersey paid another big dividend for the astute duke, for it allowed him to link his canal into the great inland waterway network now being planned, joining the Trent and Mersey Canal at Preston Brook.
James Brindley, the engineer who helped the duke build the Bridgewater, had previously surveyed the line of what he called the Grand Cross, linking the Mersey with the Humber, the Severn, the Avon and the Thames.
After the Bridgewater success, new canals followed quickly and the country experienced what became known as "canal mania", with groups of profit-hunting businessmen fighting with each other to launch rival schemes and compete for the services of surveyors and engineers, who quickly became overloaded with work.
By 1772, the River Mersey had been linked to the River Severn at Stourport and, five years later, the Mersey and Trent were connected. A link from the Severn to the Thames followed in 1789 and a year later the Mersey, Trent and Thames were joined.
The Grand Junction Canal, the major link between Birmingham and London, begun in 1793, was not finally completed until the year of Trafalgar - 1805 - but it meant that goods could be carried from the Midlands to the capital by water without risking attacks from French raiders in the English Channel.
In 1770 - four years before the completion of the Bridgewater - an Act of Parliament had authorised the building of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, which was to be, at 126 miles, the longest in Britain.
The Eastern and Western sections were completed by 1780, but cash shortages and the Napoloeonic Wars delayed construction of the trans-Pennine section.
BACK to nature ... today, weeds choke this once-busy lock on the Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal near Radcliffe
It was not until 1816, the year after Waterloo, that the full length was opened to traffic, linking Liverpool, Wigan, Blackburn, Burnley, Bradford and Leeds.
Four years later, the Leigh branch linked the L and L with the Bridgewater and the canals of the rest of England. By this date, Britain could boast 2,200 miles of canal and almost the same length of navigable river.
Elsewhere in the North West, The Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal was completed in 1796, the Ashton in 1799, the Peak Forest in 1800 and the Rochdale, linking Manchester with Yorkshire, in 1804.
Coal, timber, fertilisers and other heavy goods could now be moved around the region with ease, independent of the roads, while the Bridgewater and the Bolton introduced passenger packets which made up for in comfort what they lacked in speed.
The great missed opportunity of the canal era, of course, was that the network was constructed piecemeal, with no co-ordinated plan to turn it into an integrated system, with all the benefits that would have brought.
Had the Government been on the ball, the country could have had a far more efficient and useful network, but as it was canals were built of different widths and to varying standards, making passage across the system far more difficult than it need have been.
Nevertheless, the canal system continued to prosper until the 1830s, when it was dealt a massive blow by the introduction of railways, which were faster and cheaper. Slowly, the waterways began to fall into disuse and many were taken over by the railway companies, who saw the benefits of acquiring land cheaply and at the same time controlling their only major rivals.