John Smeaton

The English civil engineer John Smeaton (1724-1792) transformed the handicraft of engineering into a profession by applying experimental science to architectural and mechanical problems.

John Smeaton was born on June 8, 1724, at Austhorpe in Yorkshire. His father was an attorney. As a boy, Smeaton made his own hand tools, casting and forging them himself, and made a small lathe for turning wood. He also made a steam engine, which had the dubious success of pumping dry his father's fish pond.

At 16 Smeaton joined his father's office, where he began legal studies. Two years later he journeyed to London to formally enter the legal profession. However, he was more interested in the mechanical crafts and finally obtained his father's consent to become an instrument maker, a profession which roughly corresponded in terms of mechanical skill to that of a toolmaker of today but which also implied some knowledge of science. In 1750 he opened his own instrument shop.

Smeaton's scientific training came from reading and from attending the meetings of the Royal Society of London. He became a fellow of the Society in 1753 and began contributing articles to the Philosophical Transactions. In 1759 he received the Copley Gold Medal for an experimental investigation into windmills and water mills in which he showed how maximum efficiency of waterwheels could be obtained. Later he designed and constructed many water-wheels; his work represented the culmination of the development of this traditional source of water power. Not until the waterwheel was replaced by the turbine was Smeaton's work superseded.

About 1756 Smeaton began his first and most famous engineering project: the reconstruction of the Eddystone Lighthouse in the English Channel. Great Britain was becoming a major naval power, and navigational aids along and in its coastal waters were of vital importance. Eddystone was one of the most important sites. It was a half, and sometimes wholly, submerged reef which was the location of many storms and a frequent cause of shipwrecks. Two previous lighthouses there had been destroyed.

Smeaton decided to make the new lighthouse entirely of stone, a radical departure. He built a scale model of the structure, the rigidity of which was enhanced by dovetailing the courses into one another and into the reef itself. He also developed a cement that solidified and held under seawater. The lighthouse was built between 1757 and 1759. It was replaced in 1877 because that portion of the reef on which it stood had been undermined by the seas of the intervening century.

Smeaton also investigated that machine so essential to the industrial revolution—the steam engine. He was the first engineer to analyze the operation of a steam engine experimentally and to try to increase its efficiency. By about 1770 he doubled the engine's original efficiency, and he later almost tripled it. The efficiency was still very low; nevertheless, by his attention to design he created the best steam engine until James Watt placed his own on the market.

A great many technical innovations were due to Smeaton such as the extensive use of cast-iron parts in moving machinery and the introduction of the use of a diving bell for the construction of bridges and harbor works. He sought to transform what had been the handicraft tradition of engineering, which was based upon practices handed down from master to apprentice, into a profession which applied experimental science to a craft. He was one of the first to call himself a civil engineer. In 1771 he helped establish the first engineering society in the world—the Society of Civil Engineers, also called the Smeatonian Society, which in 1818 became the Institution of Civil Engineers. He died at Austhorpe on Oct. 28, 1792.

Further Reading on John Smeaton

John Smeaton's Diary of His Journey to the Low Countries, 1755 was published in 1950. There is no biography of Smeaton, but a sometimes unreliable account is in Samuel Smiles, Lives of the Engineers, vol. 2 (1891). Many references to Smeaton's work can be found in H. W. Dickinson, A Short History of the Steam Engine (1939), and throughout Charles Singer and others, eds., A History of Technology (5 vols., 1958).

Additional Biography Sources

John Smeaton, FRS, London: T. Telford, 1981.