John Smeaton

John Smeaton

: "This article is about the 18th century civil engineer. For the baggage handler involved in the 2007 Glasgow International Airport attack, see John Smeaton (baggage handler)"

Infobox Person
name = John Smeaton

image_size = 150px
caption =Portrait of John Smeaton, with the Eddystone Lighthouse in the background
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birth_date = June 8, 1724
birth_place = Austhorpe, Leeds, England
death_date = October 28, 1792 (aged 68)
death_place = Austhorpe, Leeds, England
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nationality = England
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occupation = Civil engineer
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John Smeaton, FRS, (June 8, 1724 – October 28, 1792) was a civil engineer – often regarded as the "father of civil engineering" – responsible for the design of bridges, canals, harbours and lighthouses. He was also a more than capable mechanical engineer and an eminent physicist. He was associated with the Lunar Society. He was the first self-proclaimed civil engineer.

Law and physics

He was born in Austhorpe, Leeds, England. After studying at Leeds Grammar School, he joined his father's law firm, but then left to become a mathematical instrument maker (working with Henry Hindley), developing, among other instruments, a pyrometer to study material expansion and a whirling speculum or horizontal top (a maritime navigation aid).

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1753, and in 1759 won the Copley Medal for his research into the mechanics of waterwheels and windmills. His 1759 paper "An Experimental Enquiry Concerning the Natural Powers of Water and Wind to Turn Mills and Other Machines Depending on Circular Motion" addressed the relationship between pressure and velocity for objects moving in air, and his concepts were subsequently developed to devise the 'Smeaton Coefficient'. [ [ Centennial of flight: Smeaton's Coefficient] ]

However, over the period 1759-1782, he performed a series of further experiments and measurements on waterwheels that led him to support and champion the "vis viva" theory of German Gottfried Leibniz, an early formulation of conservation of energy. This led him into conflict with members of the academic establishment who rejected Leibniz's theory, believing it inconsistent with Sir Isaac Newton's conservation of momentum. The debate was sadly marred by unfortunate nationalistic sentiments on the establishment's part.He was also responsible for "Smeaton's Harbour" Rye East Sussex. This was designed to keep Rye as a sea going port after the river Rother was silted up

Civil engineering

Recommended by the Royal Society, Smeaton designed the third Eddystone Lighthouse (1755-59). He pioneered the use of 'hydraulic lime' (a form of mortar which will set under water) and developed a technique involving dovetailed blocks of granite in the building of the lighthouse. His lighthouse remained in use until 1877 when - with the rock underlying the structure's foundations beginning to erode - it was dismantled and partially rebuilt at Plymouth Hoe. He is important in the history of the development of cement, because he identified the compositional requirements needed to obtain "hydraulicity" in lime; work which led ultimately to the invention of Portland cement.

Deciding that he wanted to focus on the lucrative field of civil engineering, he commenced an extensive series of commissions, including:
* the Calder and Hebble Navigation (1758-70)
* Coldstream Bridge over the River Tweed (1762-67)
* Improvements to the River Lee Navigation (1765-70)
* Perth Bridge over the River Tay in Perth (1766-71)
* Ripon Canal (1766-1773)
* the Newark Viaduct over the River Trent in Nottinghamshire (1768-70)
* the Forth and Clyde Canal from Grangemouth to Glasgow (1768-77)
* Banff harbour (1770-75)
* Aberdeen bridge (1775-80)
* Peterhead harbour (1775)
* Harbour works at Ramsgate (retention basin 1776-83; jetty 1788-1792)
* Hexham bridge (1777-90)
* the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal (1782-89)
*St Austell's Charlestown harbour in Cornwall (1792)

Because of his expertise in engineering, Smeaton was called to testify in a court for a case related to the silting-up of the harbour at Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk in 1782. He is considered to be the first expert witness to appear in an English court.

Mechanical engineer

Employing his skills as a mechanical engineer, he devised a water engine for the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in 1761 and a watermill at Alston, Cumbria in 1767 (he is credited by some for inventing the cast iron axle shaft for waterwheels). In 1782 he built the Chimney Mill at Spital Tongues in Newcastle upon Tyne, the first 5-sailed smock mill in Britain. He also improved Thomas Newcomen's atmospheric steam engine, erecting one at Chasewater mine in Cornwall in 1775.


Highly regarded by other engineers, he contributed to the Lunar Society and founded the Society of Civil Engineers in 1771. He coined the term "civil engineers" to distinguish them from military engineers graduating from the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. After his death, the Society was renamed the Smeatonian Society, and was a forerunner of the Institution of Civil Engineers, established in 1818.

His pupils included canal engineer William Jessop and architect and engineer Benjamin Latrobe.

He died after suffering a stroke while walking in the garden of his family home at Austhorpe, and was buried in the parish church at Whitkirk, West Yorkshire.

John Smeaton lends his name to a high school in the suburbs of Leeds, adjacent to the Pendas Fields estate near Austhorpe. He is also mentioned in the song "I Predict a Riot" (as a symbol of a more dignified and peaceful epoch in Leeds history; and in reference to a Junior School House at Leeds Grammar School, which lead singer Ricky Wilson attended) by the indie rock band Kaiser Chiefs, who are natives of Leeds.

External links

* [ Structure Details: Chimney Mill]
* [ Smeaton's profile at the BBC]


NAME= Smeaton, John
DATE OF BIRTH= June 8, 1724
PLACE OF BIRTH= Austhorpe, Leeds, England
DATE OF DEATH= October 28, 1792
PLACE OF DEATH= Austhorpe, Leeds, England

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