John Smeaton

John Smeaton

1724 - 1792

Country United Kingdom

Specialisms water, roads, bridges, millworks

Career highlights

Why you might have heard of John Smeaton

John Smeaton, the “father of civil engineering”, designed the new Eddystone Lighthouse, also known as Smeaton’s Tower, off the coast of Plymouth, after it was destroyed by a fire in December 1755.

He'd just started out in his civil engineering career when he did the job, and the success of the project led to him becoming one of the busiest consulting civil engineers during the second half of the 18th century.

He also designed Smeaton’s Pier, in St Ives, in 1766.

John founded the first engineering society in the world, Society of Civil Engineers, in 1771, which became the Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers after his death. The society still meets at the Institution of Civil Engineer’s headquarters, One Great George Street, to this day.

Education

John Smeaton went to Leeds Grammar School between the ages of 10 and 16.

During the two years after he left, he showed an interest in engineering by having his own workshop at home, where he built himself a lathe (a machine for shaping materials like wood or metal), and where he could also melt metal and forge iron.

At the age of 18, in 1742, John’s father sent him to London to get a legal education at Gray’s Inn.

However, he returned home in the summer of 1744, and went to Austhorpe, Yorkshire, where he developed skills to become a scientific instrument maker.

Career

John Smeaton based his life-long consulting engineering practice at his family home, Austhorpe Lodge in Whitkirk.

As well as civil engineering, John Smeaton enjoyed carrying out scientific experiments, and 18 of his papers were published by the Royal Society, the world’s oldest, independent scientific academy.

The topics he wrote about for the Royal Society included a vacuum pump, the thermal expansion of metals, and the practical measure of horsepower.

However, his most important work was a series of experiments on model water wheels and windmills, in 1752, carried out a year before he built his first waterwheel.

This was the start of a long career in designing millworks. He focussed mainly on watermills, with a few windmills and horse-drawn mills.

John’s civil engineering experience extended beyond millworks.

He designed new canal navigations, consulted on the drainage of land for farming use, and built road bridges, and designed six river dams.

The largest dam, built in 1776 on the river Coquet for ironworks in Northumberland, still exists today.

He also designed steam engines and pumping engines for coalfields, and harbours.

Eddystone Lighthouse

Eddystone Lighthouse

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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.

John Smeaton’s obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine

Fascinating facts

John Smeaton was a pioneer in the use of cast iron in water and windmill mechanisms.

It was the President of the Royal Society who recommended John to design the new Eddystone Lighthouse.

He designed nearly 60 new millworks during his career.

Before he embarked on a career in civil engineering, John set up a business as a scientific instrument-maker in London, in 1748.

John’s first engineering study was on bridge repair, written in 1748. It was about a method of repairing a sunken pier of Westminster Bridge in London.

A memorial stone to John Smeaton can be seen at Westminster Abbey in London.

Notable projects

Eddystone Lighthouse (Smeaton’s Tower)

Forth and Clyde Canal

River Coquet dam

Fenland drainage schemes for Potteric Carr, Doncaster.

Smeaton’s Pier, St Ives

Ramsgate harbour, Kent
 

Membership of societies

Elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1753

Founder and member of the Society of Civil Engineers until his death in 1792

Personal life

John Smeaton was born in Leeds, Yorkshire, on 28 May 1724, to William Smeaton and Mary Stones. He was the eldest of three children.

His father William was a lawyer with his own successful practice in Leeds, while his great grandfather, (also named John Smeaton) was a watchmaker in York.

John married Ann Jenkinson, also from York, on 7 June 1756, in St George’s Hanover Square in London.

They had three daughters: Hannah (born 1757), Ann (born 1759), and Mary (born 1761). In his will, John also mentioned an illegitimate son, John Reynolds.

John Smeaton died of a stroke on 28 October 1792 at Austhorpe Lodge and was buried in Whitkirk’s St Mary’s Church.

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