MacNeill, Sir John Benjamin

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b. 1793 (?) Mount Pleasant, near Dundalk, Louth, Ireland
d. 2 March 1880
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Irish railway engineer and educator.
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Sir John MacNeill became a pupil of Thomas Telford and served under him as Superintendent of the Southern Division of the Holyhead Road from London to Shrewsbury. In this capacity he invented a "Road Indicator" or dynamometer. Like other Telford followers, he viewed the advent of railways with some antipathy, but after the death of Telford in 1834 he quickly became involved in railway construction and in 1837 he was retained by the Irish Railway Commissioners to build railways in the north of Ireland (Vignoles received the commission for the south). Much of his subsequent career was devoted to schemes for Irish railways, both those envisaged by the Commissioners and other private lines with more immediately commercial objectives. He was knighted in 1844 on the completion of the Dublin \& Drogheda Railway along the east coast of Ireland. In 1845 MacNeill lodged plans for over 800 miles (1,300 km) of Irish railways. Not all of these were built, many falling victim to Irish poverty in the years after the Famine, but he maintained a large staff and became financially embarrassed. His other schemes included the Grangemouth Docks in Scotland, the Liverpool \& Bury Railway, and the Belfast Waterworks, the latter completed in 1843 and subsequently extended by Bateman.
MacNeill was an engineer of originality, being the person who introduced iron-lattice bridges into Britain, employing the theoretical and experimental work of Fairbairn and Eaton Hodgkinson (the Boyne Bridge at Drogheda had two such spans of 250ft (76m) each). He also devised the Irish railway gauge of 5 ft 2 in. (1.57 m). Consulted by the Board of Trinity College, Dublin, regarding a School of Engineering in 1842, he was made an Honorary LLD of the University and appointed the first Professor of Civil Engineering, but he relinquished the chair to his assistant, Samuel Downing, in 1846. MacNeill was a large and genial man, but not, we are told, "of methodical and business habit": he relied heavily on his subordinates. Blindness obliged him to retire from practice several years before his death. He was an early member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, joining in 1827, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1838.
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Principal Honours and Distinctions
FRS 1838.
Further Reading
Dictionary of National Biography. Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers
73:361–71.
AB

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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