Late, great engineers: John Smeaton - father of civil engineering

Born three hundred years ago, John Smeaton was the first person to call himself a civil engineer, whose design for the third Eddystone Lighthouse has ensured his immortality.

Civil engineer John Smeaton - 1724 - 1792
Civil engineer John Smeaton - 1724 - 1792 - Public Domain

One of the great names in the history of engineering, John Smeaton was an eighteenth-century trailblazer. Whether you are north in Aberdeen or down in St Ives, says his entry in the Thoresby Society’s ‘They Lived in Leeds’ hall of fame, ‘you can walk along harbour piers designed by John Smeaton more than 200 years ago’. All over the country, the citation continues, you can cross bridges, navigate canals, walk fenlands that he helped to create’. But perhaps most importantly ‘at Plymouth you can stand where he stood watching anxiously through his telescope, and see his reconstructed Eddystone Lighthouse, the marvel of its age’. The first self-styled ‘civil engineer’ – he coined the term to differentiate himself from his military counterparts – was invited to demonstrate a model of his famous construction to King George II, and in 1771 founded the Society of Civil Engineers (renamed the Smeatonian Society after his death), precursor of the Institution of Civil Engineers

Smeaton was much in demand for his services as a freelance engineer. So much so that his consultant visiting card doubled up as a rate-sheet, his fee quoted at three levels. His up-front ‘lowest fee for consultation at home’ was one guinea (about £200 in today’s money), while callouts were double, and a special trip to London would set his client back a more substantial five guineas, ‘whether employed the whole morning or day’. Despite the relative modesty of his fees, and his reluctance to take on more lucrative overseas work, there is little doubt that Smeaton was held in high regard by his profession. In the mid-nineteenth century legendary locomotive designer Robert Stephenson remarked of Smeaton’s reports published by the Society of Engineers in 1797 that ‘to this day there are no writings so valuable as his in the highest walks of scientific engineering... Smeaton was indeed a very great man.’ In his Lives of the Engineers: Smeaton and Rennie (1904) Samuel Smiles wrote: ‘Of Mr. Smeaton’s intellectual powers it would be difficult to speak too highly.’

Almost nothing is known of John Smeaton’s formative years other than he was born in Austhorpe Lodge near Leeds on 8 June 1724, attended Leeds Grammar School and joined his father’s law firm. Smiles, who often uses conjecture as a biographical research method, suggests that he ‘was a born mechanic; and a mechanic he remained to the last’ who ‘contrived and constructed from pure love of invention’. Smiles spins yarns about how the ‘mechanical experiments of his boyhood’ had been conducted at Austhorpe, ‘as well as those of his maturer years’, and tells tales gleaned from hand-me-down memories of local people. He pieces together the floorplan of Smeaton’s four-storey square tower that was home to his forge, lathe, drawing and lumber rooms. He explains how Smeaton would lock himself away in total isolation: ‘When he entered his sanctum, strict orders were given that he was not to be disturbed on any account. No one was permitted to ascend the circular staircase which led to his study.’ No one objected either, especially the local blacksmith who Smeaton paid by the hour, who would patiently wait for the engineer to appear: ‘whether he was sitting there or blowing his forge, it was much the same to him.’

By 1748, despite the anecdotal objections of his well-connected father who had intended his son to follow his footsteps into the law, Smeaton was making a living in London as a mathematical instrument maker alongside Henry Hindley, inventor of the eponymous pyrometer. According to a brief biography that accompanies Smeaton’s memorial stone in Westminster Abbey, one of his early successes in the metropolis was the ‘perfecting of a mariner’s compass, which was adopted by the Royal Navy’. Again the trail goes cold, but it is known that by 1750 Smeaton had started his own business as a maker of ‘philosophical instruments’ in Great Turnstile, a narrow lane between High Holborn and Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London. In 1753 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, which notes that during the 1750s ‘he produced several technical innovations, including a novel pyrometer with which he studied the expansion of various materials. However, the pace of industrial and commercial progress directed his attention to large scale engineering works.’ in 1759 he published the paper Experimental inquiry concerning the powers of water and wind in the moving of Mills in which he developed concepts and data that would form the basis of the Smeaton coefficient, for which he received the Society’s Copley Medal.

It was during this decade that Smeaton worked on his best-known achievement – the rebuilding of the Eddystone lighthouse – which ‘confirmed his reputation as an engineer’ and was, according to historian Edward Maunder, ‘probably his first major civil engineering project’. In fact, Smeaton’s structure was the third incarnation in a series of four, the need for which had come about following the destruction of the previous two. The first was an octagonal wooden design by English painter and engineer Henry Winstanley that was washed away in a storm, while the second was the brainchild of silk merchant John Rudyard, whose edifice stood for half a century before being destroyed by a fire caused by a candle used to illuminate its light. Through his connections at the Royal Society, Smeaton was duly appointed to propose a new design built of stone and modelled on the form of an oak tree. 

The same mind has in reality a much greater facility in some subjects than in others.

John Smeaton (1724-1792)

Work started in 1756, and by 12 June the 2¼-ton foundation stone had been transported to the construction site by the Eddystone Boat. The foundations and outside structure were built of local Cornish granite, while lighter Portland limestone masonry was used on the inside. As part of the construction process, Smeaton pioneered the use of hydraulic lime (that had been invented by the Phoenicians and perfected by the Romans) – a type of concrete that cured under water, which led to the development of Portland cement and later modern concrete. He also developed a technique of securing the blocks using dovetail joints and marble dowels that would become the standard technique for the design of wave-swept structures. Work continued over the course of the following two years, and the light was first lit on 16 October 1759. After more than a century of service, in the 1870s discovery of erosion in the bedrock on which the lighthouse stood led to Smeaton’s tower being decommissioned, with the top half dismantled and re-erected on Plymouth Hoe as a monument to the builder. The remaining stump still stands in place on Eddystone Rock.

The lighthouse was a turning point in Smeaton’s career, after which he embarked on an extensive series of civil engineering commissions that were to significantly improve transport communications in eighteenth-century Britain. His entry in Britannica lists among Smeaton’s highlights the construction of the Forth and Clyde Canal in Scotland, ‘which opened a waterway between the Atlantic and the North Sea’ as well as bridges at Perth, Banff and Coldstream. He also ‘took a leading part in the transition from wind-and-water to steam power. He introduced cast-iron shafts and gearing into windmills and water mills… Owing to his improvements, the Newcomen atmospheric steam engine achieved its maximum performance. He designed large atmospheric pumping engines for Long Benton colliery in Northumberland, Chacewater mine in Cornwall, and the docks of Kronshtadt in Russia. He also improved the safety of the diving bell by fitting an air pump to the bell.’

During the construction of the Eddystone Lighthouse Smeaton pioneered the use of hydraulic lime - Alamy

As a consultant, throughout his career Smeaton was a frequent expert witness before committees of both Houses of Parliament in support of bills for authorising the construction of bridges, canals and waterworks. He delivered his testimony in what Smiles describes as ‘a modest, simple, and straightforward manner, such as is calculated to win confidence and respect, far more than that glib and unscrupulous style which has since become the fashion. Moreover, he was known to be a most conscientious man, and that he would not express an opinion on any subject until he had thoroughly mastered it.’ Elsewhere in his biography Smiles states that Smeaton was a bluff Yorkshireman who lived by the maxim that you should never use a file when a hammer will do.

At the age of 68 Smeaton died of a stroke at Austhorpe and is buried in the parish church of Whitkirk, where a memorial tablet reads: ‘A man whom God had endowed with the most extraordinary abilities, which he indefatigably exerted for the benefit of Mankind in the works of Science and Philosophical research: More especially as an Engineer and Mechanic’.