Ironbridge Gorge: Visible Learning

Virtual Nostalgia in the Birthplace of a Revolution

Last update 3 August 2001

The Ironbridge at Severn Gorge utilised joint techniques familiar from timber construction methods as part of the learning process with a new material in a new design environment.

The bridge was built to replace cross-river ferries which delivered materials to the local iron works. It was built in 1779 seventy years after the first successful smelting of iron with coke - the process which allowed scaling of production to the levels that supported the expansion of the first industrial revolution. Its instigator, Abraham Darby III, was the grandson of the Abraham Darby who developed coke smelting.

In producing the prefabricated cast iron components for the bridge, the designers resorted to timber connection methods to guarantee reliable assembly. Knowledge developed over generations of timber frame building construction was transferred to the new material. This knowledge was as much a locational resource as the iron ore, limestone and coal which underpinned the iron-making. This local legacy framed the creation of new knowledge by reducing the learning required for the application of a novel material to a demanding situation.

This approach controlled the size of a potential design solution space by transferring existing knowledge into a new context. Such an approach brings an incremental dimension into systemic innovation.

The bridge now forms the centrepiece of a UNESCO world heritage site

The Ironbridge museum provides access to a virtual tour of the gorge, courtesy of Virtual Shropshire.

An account by an enthusiastic recent visitor gives details of the bridge and its construction.

An on-line chronology of events in the gorge is also available. This features the decline of the original industries and the rise of the heritage industries that now commemorate them.

The University of Birmingham hosts the Ironbridge Institute which provides postgraduate courses in heritage management and industrial heritage

However, Ironbridge is now part of Telford, created initially as Dawley, Wellington and Oakengates New Town, but subsequently taking the name of the engineer Thomas Telford. Telford was active in Shropshire, but is best remembered for the Britannia suspension bridge across the Menai Strait and highway and canal construction.

Telford's birthplace of Moffat in southern Scotland lays claim to him, but Samuel Smiles' account of his life from the nineteenth century assured his place in the pantheon of the first industrial revolution.

Current industries in his namesake town reflect the second and third industrial revolutions. In the electronics sector, the largest employer is Epson Telford, the largest producer of printers in Europe. Tatung, Mitac Europe, Enta Technologies, Maxell Europe and Ablex Audio Visual also contribute to the computer, peripherals and audio sector. Many of the companies in Telford. Ricoh, Makita and NEC Technologies have their European manufacturing headquarters in Telford, with a high proportion of their output destined for the remainder of the European Union.

Telford became a center for polymer materials development and manufacture after some fifty companies in the industry followed Hitachi Maxell's decision to locate in the area. The British Polymer Training Association located its advanced Technical Centre in Telford.

There are also 45 automotive companies in Telford, with 40% from overseas. These are predominantly A wide range of component producers, with are design and manufacture involving precision engineering, plastic moulding, interior trims die casting, air conditioning and electrical and brake systems.

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Stephen Little