They were the giants of the age whose works still dominate the British landscape; self-made men who, through their own intelligence, creativity and hard work, became the architects of the industrial revolution. No wonder that the Victorian writer and social reformer Samuel Smiles admired them and no wonder his biographies of these master engineers were so popular, handed to factory workers at the end of their apprenticeships as a sign of what could be achieved by industrious men from humble backgrounds.
It was during the 18th and 19th centuries that British engineers built a magnificent system of lighthouses, canals, railways, roads and bridges - works which are still in use today and loved as much for the elegance of their design as for their utility. It was a triumph of man's ingenuity, as engineers surmounted formidable technical and physical obstacles.
James Watt pioneered the steam engine, which would provide 'what all the world desired - power', but there was near bankruptcy along the path to success, with Watt complaining of the 'rascality of mankind'. George Stephenson began life as a colliery worker, and his first invention, the miners' safety lamp, was aimed at a danger he understood all too well. Yet this was overshadowed by his second - and most famous invention - the steam locomotive. Smiles marvelled at such engineering feats, but his account is also filled with anecdotes which create a vivid, arresting picture of the men themselves.