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Why John Smeaton’s influence spans from NASA to a hit song

Date
22 January 2024

ICE archivist Carol Morgan looks at the incredible achievements of John Smeaton in his 300th anniversary year.

Why John Smeaton’s influence spans from NASA to a hit song
Portrait of John Smeaton by George Romney. Image credit: ICE Library

This year marks the 300th anniversary of John Smeaton, born 9 June 1724 in Whitkirk, Leeds.

How do we measure his importance today?

Well for a start, can any other engineer claim to have been mentioned in a hit song and on the NASA website?

1. Father of civil engineering

Smeaton is often referred to as the father of civil engineering.

He was the first recorded person in the UK to call himself a civil engineer.

It was a term he used to differentiate himself from military engineers who were employed by the government.

Report where John Smeaton is referred to as a civil engineer. Image credit: ICE Library
Report where John Smeaton is referred to as a civil engineer. Image credit: ICE Library

He also trained William Jessop who became the leading engineer of the next generation.

2. Consultancy and project management pioneer

Smeaton was one of the first to work as a consulting engineer.

John Smeaton’s trading card. Image credit: The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 DEED licence: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/)
John Smeaton’s trading card. Image credit: The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 DEED licence: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/)

His fees ranged from 1 guinea (£215 today) if consulted at home, 2 guineas if he had to go onsite to a massive 5 guineas if he had to go to London.

During his life, he produced 200 reports and designed over 100 schemes.

He contributed to the development of project management and set out the relationships and responsibilities of clients, engineers and contractors.

These have remained valid for 250 years.

3. The Smeatonians

The Society of Engineers was renamed The Smeatonians in honour of him after his death.

Founded in 1771 by a group including Smeaton, the society was made up of the top of the profession.

The Smeatonians meet regularly at the ICE.

Many ICE presidents have also been presidents of the Smeatonians, including Sir John Rennie and Robert Stephenson.

And, more recently, Sir Doug Oakervee, Sir John Armitt and Professor George Fleming.

4. Influential reports

Smeaton’s work was considered important enough by his contemporaries for his reports to be published by the Society of Engineers in 1797.

Sixty years later, Robert Stephenson remarked:

“To this day there are no writings so valuable as his in the highest walks of scientific engineering...

“Go to Smeaton’s philosophical papers, read them, master them thoroughly, and nothing will be of greater service to you.”

5. Experimental work

Smeaton’s experimental work drove improvements in the design of sustainable wind and water powered mills.

It also led to improvements in the steam engine which went on to power the Industrial Revolution.

He pioneered an understanding of cement.

His experiments with hydraulic lime that set in water while designing the Eddystone Lighthouse developed the use of Portland cement.

He was awarded a Copley Medal by the Royal Society in 1759 for his paper on ‘An experimental inquiry concerning the natural process of water and wind to turn mills and other machines depending on a circular motion’.

6. Revolutionary lighthouse design

Smeaton’s design for the Eddystone lighthouse became the pattern for future offshore rock lighthouses.

The Eddystone lighthouse. Image credit: ICE Library
The Eddystone lighthouse. Image credit: ICE Library

Smeaton was inspired by an oak tree to splay out the bottom of the lighthouse for stability.

This design also broke the waves, allowing them to run up the lighthouse, thus preventing erosion.

The tower was made of interlocking blocks of masonry, again for strength.

Partially removed to Plymouth Hoe in 1877, the lighthouse is commemorated on the ICE coat of arms.

ICE coat of arms. Image credit: ICE Library
ICE coat of arms. Image credit: ICE Library

7. Smeaton helped the Wright Brothers fly

While experimenting with windmills, Smeaton developed what was thought to be a constant value of air pressure which could be used to determine lift.

This value was later named Smeaton’s coefficient.

When Wilbur and Orville Wright were conducting experiments on wing shapes using models and a wind tunnel, they used Smeaton’s coefficient to determine the lift and drag of the wings.

Their experiments with gliders enabled them to calculate a more accurate value.

NASA refer to Smeaton’s coefficient on their website: “The earliest published value (.005) was from the Englishman, John Smeaton, and so the pressure factor was named after him.”

Smeaton’s coefficient is no longer used as it was discovered air pressure isn’t constant but varies with altitude and temperature.

8. Commemorated in Westminster Abbey

Smeaton has a memorial stone in Westminster Abbey, along with the likes of ICE President Thomas Telford, Michael Faraday, and Henry Royce, of Rolls Royce fame.

Unlike Telford, Smeaton wasn’t buried in the Abbey, but rather at the parish church near his home in Whitkirk.

John Smeaton memorial stone. Image credit: Dean and Chapter of Westminster
John Smeaton memorial stone. Image credit: Dean and Chapter of Westminster

9. Name-dropped in hit song

Did I mention a name check in a hit song?

The Kaiser Chief’s song, I Predict a Riot, includes the line: “Would never have happened to Smeaton, An Old Leodensian”.

Leodensian refers to someone from Leeds and more specifically a pupil or former pupil of Leeds Grammar School, which both Smeaton and Kaiser Chief’s singer, Ricky Wilson, attended.

Leeds is justifiably proud of Smeaton.

Leeds Council, University and museums and galleries have organised a number of events in 2023/4 using the hashtag #Smeaton300. We will also be using this hashtag.

Throughout the year, we will be looking at Smeaton’s work in more detail through a series of blogs.

  • Carol Morgan, archivist at ICE