Oct 282017

Apart from a vague memory that he had ‘something to do with lighthouses’ I knew nothing about Smeaton, and yet he really was a remarkable engineer, with incredibly diverse interests and achievements. He cut his teeth on wind mills and water wheels, working out scientifically their power and effectiveness. He analyzed steam engines, making improvements to the early Newcomen engines and working out ways to measure their performance accurately. He designed bridges and canals; he advised on schemes for harbours and coastal protection walls. He studied the ‘physics’ of cement, not only coming up with a mixture which was quick drying and could be used under water, but also setting out the principles which would eventually lead to modern ‘Portland’ cement. He worked out a way to dovetail solid granite blocks, pegged with marble, to create a structure which could withstand a hundred years of being battered by the sea. He devised a scheme to raise those blocks eighteen metres in the air, from a moving (floating) base so that those stones could be put in place atop the Eddystone Lighthouse.

Smeaton’s drawings for the waterwheels for the Carron Company ironworks on the River Carron near Falkirk. (Drawing courtesy of Engineering Timelines

In carrying out this wide range of work he declared that it was different to that carried out by military engineers, and named his area of expertise ‘civil engineering’ to mark that difference. In many senses he can therefore be described as the father of civil engineering. He was both the product of the Industrial Revolution, and one of its architects. As such he deserves to be better remembered.

Born and brought up near Leeds, where his father was a lawyer, he initially trained for the Law before leaving to make scientific instruments. He had a wonderful way of inspiring others around him, always willing to see how things worked, whether they could be improved and so on. In 1753 he was admitted to the Royal Society and six years later was awarded the Copley Medal. It was the Royal Society which recommended Smeaton, then aged thirty, to be the engineer in charge of rebuilding the Eddystone lighthouse after the previous version burned down in a disastrous fire. In the 1760’s and 70’s he moved on to designing bridges, viaducts, jetties and harbour walls the length and breadth of the country.

In all he is associated with some three dozen major engineering works, some sixty mills and ten steam engines (designed to pump water out of deep mine shafts).He is particularly remembered for the Forth and Clyde Canal, crossing the entire breadth of Scotland from East to West; Ramsey Harbour and Perth Bridge.Perth Bridge

He had inherited Austhorpe Lodge near Leeds, built by his grandfather, and moth-balled by his father. He set about constructing a tall tower for use as his consultancy studio – with a forge downstairs in the basement, a lathe on the floor above, a floor for his models and then a floor used for his drawing room and study, topped off by an attic area used for storage – and Smeaton’s astronomical studies. Once he was immersed in his studies he was never to be disturbed. It was his practice to start each project with a sketch, which he would hand over to his two draughtsmen to have developed into detailed drawings.

He pioneered fixed fees for routine commissions – twenty five guineas for a water mill, thirty guineas for a windmill. Customers were charged one guinea for a consultation at Austhorpe, double that ‘if sent for’ and five guineas if he was required to spend the day in London.

In 1771 he became one of the founder members of the Society of Civil Engineers – a fortnightly dining club for engineers and scientists to meet and discuss current ideas. Upon his death it was renamed the Smeatonian Society – a name it has kept to this day.

On 16th September 1792 Smeaton suffered a stroke while walking in his garden at Austhorpe. He recovered his mental faculties and was aware of his physical incapacity, ruefully remarking “It could not be otherwise; the shadows must lengthen as the sun goes down”. He died on 28th October and is buried in the parish church of St Mary’s, Whitkirk, in West Yorkshire.

The Gentleman’s Magazine contained his obituary: “As a civil engineer, Mr. Smeaton was not equalled by any of the age he lived in: it may, perhaps be added, by none of any previous age”.

Never once did my ancestor Richard Hall mention John Smeaton, and yet there can have been few men who had more influence on the world in which Richard lived.

Smeaton, shown with the Eddystone Lighhouse behind his right shoulder


PS: This post first appeared five years ago (crikes, have I been blogging that long?!) and I will be including Smeaton in my next-book-but-one (on lesser-known Georgian inventors, who languish out of sight while better known, and often less talented, individuals hog the limelight. I appreciate that Smeaton is by no means ‘unknown but he is hardly a household name….).



  3 Responses to “Another chance to remember John Smeaton (1724 -1792) – the country’s first civil engineer, died 28th October.”


    Fascinating! to my shame I know far less about this remarkable man than I should


    My name is John Smeaton born 08/06/1955 same day as the famous engineer . As I understand it his first born daughters name was Hannah which is my daughters name who is also our first born.


    Hydraulic cement — cement that will set under water — was known to the Romans, but seems to have fallen into desuetude. Smeaton’s lighthouse was based on the shape of an oak tree. Erosion of the granite on which it stood meant that it became unstable; it was removed and placed as a monument on Plymouth Hoe. The base of the lighthouse, however, proved resistant to removal and remains where it was built.

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