John Smeaton

John Smeaton (1724—1792) was the first to use ‘Civil Engineer’ as a title. He is now most famous for his rebuilding of the Eddystone Ligthhouse after it burned down in 1755. However, Smeaton was an incredibly industrious man, racking up a huge number of projects of a bewildering variety. It is exhausting just reading about his activities.

John Smeaton was born in 1724 at Austhorpe, near Leeds, in Yorkshire. His father was a lawyer and intended John, his eldest son, to follow in his path. At a young age John Smeaton found a great mechanical aptitude and interest, making his own tools as necessary for his work. While still a teenager, he met and formed a close friendship with nearby clockmaker Henry Hindley (1701—1771). Smeaton’s father sent him to London to study for the law, but it did not last, although Smeaton retained a careful and precise way of writing reports and memos for his clients that lasted his whole career.

Abandoning formal legal training, Smeaton returned to Austhorpe and, presumably taught by Henry Hindley, trained as a philosophical instrument maker. By his mid-twenties he had set up shop in London, started moving in scientific circles in the capital, and soon began publishing papers in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Around 1752 he began his investigations into water- and wind-mill power, studying efficiency of under- and over-shot water-wheels and the effects of varying the shape and angle of windmill sails. On the strength of his work in philosophical instruments he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1753, and when he finally published his paper on wind and water power to great acclaim in 1759, he was awarded the Society’s prestigious Copley Medal.

His first mill was built in 1753. In 1755 he went on a tour of the Low Countries for five weeks, closely observing mills, locks, canals, and harbors. His diary records his detailed observations of hydraulic works, but matters not directly related to engineering get short shrift. I don’t think he ever mentions what he ate, for example. Smeaton was an excellent engineering draughtsman, and hundreds of his careful drawings survive, but he was less interested in non-practical art. His diary for June 22, in Bruges, records:

I see the 2 Great churches for the service of the town, in which were such a numbers of Altars, Crucifixes, Priests, Painting &c., as it would be endless to describe: among the paintings I see many that pleased me, but none that struck me sufficiently to make me remember them. (Diary, 15)

The Eddystone Lighthouse burned down in December 1755 and in February 1756, Smeaton was appointed to rebuild it, a task which occupied much of his time until October 1759. He married Ann Jenkinson in June 1756, but she can’t have seen much of him in the early years of their marriage. They had two daughters who reached adulthood, Ann and Mary; Mary married Jeremiah Dixon.

After the completion of the lighthouse, he moved his base to Austhorpe, making trips to London and wherever his commissions took him as necessary. In the early 1760s, he designed and built the Calder navigation, involving 26 locks in 24 miles. He consulted on several large drainage projects, designed pumping engines, and planned the Forth and Clyde Canal. He also designed the lovely Coldstream Bridge.

All this was the work of just five years or so, and he kept up this pace including a steady flow of technical innovations for the rest of his working life.

He was painted several times, including this portrait from around 1759, now in the collection of the Royal Society.

Another of Smeaton’s commissions was a water pump for Kew in 1761 which raised water from a deep well for the lake. It is presumably this project that brought him into contact with Joshua Kirby, then Clerk of the Works at Kew, and probably explains Smeaton’s support for Kirby’s FRS candidacy.

 

Sources:

Skempton, A.W., ed. John Smeaton, FRS. London: Thomas Telford Limited, 1981.

Smeaton’s DNB entry.

Smeaton, J. John Smeaton’s Diary of his Journey to the Low Countries 1755. Leamington Spa: The Newcomen Society, 1938.

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One thought on “John Smeaton

  1. Pingback: Joshua Kirby, F.R.S. | Kirby and his world

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