Sir John Fowler, 1st Baronet, lived from 15 July 1817 to 10 November 1898. He was a railway engineer best known as one of the designers of the Forth Bridge. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
John Fowler was born at Wadsley Hall on the edge of Sheffield and privately educated locally. He then took up an engineering post at the Sheffield waterworks before moving into railway engineering. By 1839, at the age of 22, he was appointed resident engineer on the building of the Stockton and Hartlepool Railway. He then became the company's engineer, general manager and locomotive superintendent. At the age of 27 in 1844 he became an independent consulting engineer. He joined the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in the year it formed, 1847, and two years later joined the Institution of Civil Engineers. In 1850 he married Elizabeth Broadbent of Manchester. They subsequently had four sons.
In 1860 Fowler was appointed engineer of the Metropolitan Railway, being responsible for establishing 15 miles of what is now the London Underground. Amongst his innovations was the development of "Fowler's Ghost" an ultimately unsuccessful locomotive designed to travel underground without making smoke. Over the following two decades he was responsible for overseeing the building of railways in various parts of the UK as well as in Egypt and India. Among his notable achievements was the building of Manchester Central railway station. In 1865 he became the youngest ever president of the Institution of Civil Engineers.
Fowler is best known in Scotland as a bridge designer. From 1850, Edinburgh was connected to Perth by rail using a roll-on roll-off ferry directly linking Granton near Leith and Burntisland in Fife. This all changed in 1879 when construction began on a railway suspension bridge. This was designed by Thomas Bouch, builder of the Tay Railway Bridge that had opened the previous year. The collapse of the Tay Bridge with large loss of life on 28 December 1879 brought a halt to work on Bouch's Forth Bridge with just part of one pier built. The completely redesigned bridge that was started in 1883 remains one of the world's most distinctive structures. It was opened by Edward, Prince of Wales on 4 March 1890. The bridge was constructed by Sir William Arrol to a design by Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker. In the aftermath of the Tay Bridge disaster the Forth Bridge was a testament to robust and conservative over-engineering.
When it was first constructed, the Forth Bridge was regarded as the eighth wonder of the world. Familiarity breeds contempt, and it is easy to forget that this is a structure every bit as spectacular and remarkable as the Eiffel Tower, of which it can seem oddly reminiscent. Less well known is another bridge built by Fowler in Scotland. The Corrieshalloch Suspension Bridge was built in 1874 to allow tourists a better view down into the gorge 200ft below.
In 1890 Sir John Fowler's achievements were recongnised when he was made a Baronet. He died in 1898 at the age of 81 in Bournemouth and was buried in London's Brompton Cemetery.