John Smeaton - the First Civil Engineer Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

John Smeaton - the First Civil Engineer

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It is contrary to the usual practice of professional men to give their opinions upon each other's work unless regularly called upon in the way of their profession.
- John Smeaton (1724 - 1792)

John Smeaton first described himself as a 'civil engineer' in 1768. In doing so, he identified a new profession that was distinct from that of the military engineers who, since ancient times, had undertaken the construction of all public infrastructure. Thus, at the time, 'civil engineering' encompassed all non-military engineering. Although in 1847, after a frenzy of railway construction, mechanical engineering bifurcated1 from civil engineering as an independent discipline.

An innovative and intelligent man, Smeaton remains one of engineering's most revered professionals and is commonly regarded as the father of the civil engineering profession.

Butcher, Baker, Instrument-maker

The son of a Yorkshire lawyer, John Smeaton was born on 8 June, 1724, at Austhorpe Lodge in the parish of Whitkirk, four miles east of Leeds, UK. Before his 16th birthday, while still at school, his precocious talent for engineering and use of mechanical tools possessed him to assemble a turning-lathe. Upon leaving school in 1742, he worked briefly in his father's chambers in Westminster Hall before persuading his father to allow him to follow some mechanical profession, young John Smeaton having decided upon a technical career.

Thus, Smeaton proceeded to become an instrument-maker - first as an apprentice, until 1750, when he set up business on his own and set about improving the instruments used for navigation and astronomy. Between 1750 and 1755 his predilection for mechanical appliances was evidenced by a number of papers that were read before the Royal Society, of which he became a Fellow in 1753, aged only 29.


His research into windmills, watermills and other sources of power resulted, in 1754, in a systematic set of scientific experiments that made it clear that an overshot waterwheel2 is more efficient than an undershot wheel3. In 1756, Smeaton made a tour of the Low Countries where he studied the hydraulics of canals.

Further, in 1759, Smeaton won the Royal Society's Copley Medal for his paper An Experimental Enquiry Concerning the Natural Powers of Water and Wind to Turn Mills and Other Machines Depending on Circular Motion, which addressed the relationship between pressure and velocity for objects moving in air.

The Eddystone Lighthouse

Oh, me father was the keeper of the Eddystone Light
And he slept with a mermaid one fine night
And from this union there came three
A porpoise and a porgy - and the other was me.

In 1756 the President of the Royal Society famously charged Smeaton with the construction of the Eddystone Lighthouse, a structure required to warn ships away from the Eddystone rocks, 14 miles southwest of Plymouth. Smeaton's challenge was to build a structure whose two previous incarnations had failed. The first one, made of wood in 1698, had lasted only five years until it fell to pieces, hammered by the waves. The next, made of wood and iron, burned down after 47 years. Smeaton's design, which remains a symbol of the profession and is enshrined in the coat of arms of the Institution of Civil Engineers, was completed in 1759 and lasted until 1881, whereupon it was dismantled and partially re-erected atop Plymouth Hoe.

Smeaton's industry resulted in two developments that contributed to the success of the Eddystone Lighthouse. First, he used a new kind of interlocking stone construction, and second, he developed a water-resistant (hydraulic) mortar to bind the blocks together by mixing blue lime and pozzolanic material from Civita Vecchia, near Rome. Indeed, Smeaton's seminal observation that the best hydraulic cements were those made from limestone containing certain proportions of clayey material are regarded as the starting point of the modern engineering use of cement and concrete.

Messing About in the Water

Smeaton's research into the hydraulics of Dutch canals stood him in good stead for his subsequent projects, which included the construction of both the 21-mile long Calder and Hebble Navigation, from the Aire and Calder Navigation at Wakefield to Sowerby Bridge, and the 10-mile long Ripon Canal and River Ure Navigation, from the centre of Ripon to Swale Nab, where the rivers Ure and Swale form the Ouse.

However, it is for his work on the Forth and Clyde Canal, which stretches across central Scotland from Grangemouth on the River Forth to Bowling on the River Clyde, constructed between 1768 and 1790, that the canal engineer in Smeaton is best remembered.

John Smeaton's impressive curriculum vitae also includes, among many others, the following projects:

  • 1762 - 1767: Coldstream Bridge
  • 1766 - 1771: Bridge at Perth
  • 1767 - 1768: Pumps at London Bridge
  • 1774 - 1775: Steam-pump at the Chasewater Mine
  • 1775 - 1780: Aberdeen Bridge
  • 1776 - 1873: Retention basin at Ramsgate Harbour
  • 1777 - 1780: Hexham Bridge
  • 1788 - 1792: Ramsgate Harbour jetty

Smeaton's Legacy

Today, having coined the term, Smeaton remains one of civil engineering's heavyweights - the breadth and depth of his influence are phenomenal. As the prototype for a flurry of like-minded 19th Century engineers (eg Henry Palmer, Thomas Telford, the Brunels) Smeaton, in his career, designed the first successful Eddystone Lighthouse, he greatly improved on Newcomen's steam engine, he designed windmills, watermills, canals and bridges as well as pumps, ports, mines and jetties.

John Smeaton died on the 28 October, 1792, after he suffered a stroke while walking in the garden of his family home at Austhorpe. His enduring legacy is more than the engineering works, some of which remain as monuments to the great man himself. Not only is he widely regarded as the founder of the civil engineering profession, but his methods of construction site management and supervision are still in use today. John Smeaton clearly understood that managing people correctly was as important as design and construction.

Stone, wood and iron are wrought and put together by mechanical methods, but the greatest work is to keep right the animal part of the machinery.
- John Smeaton

Indeed, it was Smeaton's desire that practising professional engineers should dine together - so that they might get to know one another better and thereby avoid potential hostility that might arise in their public dealings - that spawned the formation of the Society of Civil Engineers in March 1771. The Society met fortnightly at the King's Head in Holborn, and encouraged 'conversation, argument and social communication of ideas and knowledge'.

While the Society remains as a social society today (since 1830 under the mantel of the Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers), it is probably true that the concept of co-operation in competition between engineers led to the founding in 1818 of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

1It branched away from.2One operated by water moving the wheel by the force of its weight.3One that operates through the action of the flow of water against blades in the wheel.

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