John Smeaton, FRS (1724-1792)
‘The Father of Civil Engineering’

John Smeaton, FRS (1724-1792)Whether you are north in Aberdeen or down in St Ives you can walk along harbour piers designed by John Smeaton more than 200 years ago. All over the country you can cross bridges, navigate canals, walk fenlands that he helped to create. And 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 range and scope of his work was astounding: major projects in distant places reached along unmade roads that made travel a nightmare. But it was here in Leeds, in his beloved family home at Austhorpe Lodge near Whitkirk that he did much of his background work, built machines and models, experimented, and wrote his impressive reports.

He enjoyed a privileged childhood, indulged by his father, a well-connected lawyer with a practice in town. Insatiably curious, fascinated by how things worked, he was free to roam, question local craftsmen, experiment making tools, and build his own mechanical projects – including a water pump that drained the Austhorpe fish ponds dry! His father intended him for the law and after six years at Leeds Grammar School he was sent at 18 to London to train, but he begged to be allowed to pursue his true mechanical bent.

With his father’s support he set up in London as a mathematical instrument-maker, and began studies and experiments which led in 1750 to a paper on a new mariner’s compass which he read to the Royal Society, the first of many pioneering scientific papers. In 1753 he was elected Fellow (FRS). Navigation, astronomy, the power of wind and water fascinated him, and how to build and manage the environment– what he called ‘engineery’, which he began to see as his future career. To prepare, he learnt French and travelled the Netherlands studying canals, harbours, and drainage schemes.

In 1756 came the chance of a lifetime. A new lighthouse was urgently needed on the treacherous Eddystone Rock, in the stormy seas off Plymouth. Two earlier wooden lighthouses had been destroyed. Smeaton was recommended – ‘Thou art the man to do it.’ After a hazardous survey of the rock and careful research he decided to build in stone, using a wide-based shape set on an ingenious interlocking foundation – all totally innovative. He oversaw the whole project himself, sourcing the stone, developing a new form of cement, and sharing the wet dangerous building work. Progress was painfully slow – even reaching the rock often impossible in crashing seas. It was three years before he finally precariously fixed the gilt ball on top and awaited the lighting of the candles. He was full of anxiety, but his lighthouse was to stand for 130 years, until the rock itself crumbled.

His design caused a sensation. He was summoned by the King to demonstrate his model and was inundated with enquiries and visits. Meanwhile his personal life had moved on. He had married Ann Jenkinson, daughter of a York merchant, and had inherited Austhorpe Lodge which became their family home (demolished now), though he retained a London base. At the Lodge he built a separate tower housing a workshop with forge and lathe, a study and an observatory – once there no-one was allowed to disturb him!

For a time he had a paid post as administrator for a large estate, but increasingly was commissioned to design or advise on a huge range of infrastructure projects across the country: harbours, bridges, canals, drainage schemes. Nearer to home he was consulted on improvements at the foundry at Seacroft, to the Aire and Calder Navigation, a water tank at the Infirmary, a pump at Temple Newsam. He was recognised as an expert on mills and water and wind power, and in later years began to experiment with the new steam engines. Throughout his career he charged only modest fees (2 guineas a day) and resisted tempting offers to work abroad.

In 1783 he suffered a minor stroke, and although still working decided to write his own account of the Eddystone project. It took him seven years but the result was a magnificent illustrated folio volume, which tells the full, detailed story in his impressively exact, direct style, the style of all his numerous closely argued engineering reports, later published by the Society of Engineers which he had helped to found.

He was a plain, modest man who never lost his ‘provincial’ way of speaking, quiet, devoted to his family and gentle pursuits. He died from a further stroke, walking in the garden at Austhorpe, in 1792, and was buried at St Mary’s Whitkirk where a fine memorial with an image of his famous lighthouse was raised in honour of ‘one of the greatest engineers this country has ever produced.’

Eveleigh Bradford
January 2018