Civil and mechanical engineer and physicist John Smeaton was born almost 300 years ago (June 8, 1724) in England. During his prolific career, Smeaton designed numerous lighthouses, bridges, canals and harbors, improving his nation’s transportation network, which was among the most developed in the world at that time.
According to Biography, Smeaton “transformed the handicraft of engineering into a profession by applying experimental science to architectural and mechanical problems.” Smeaton was the first self-proclaimed “civil engineer,” and is regarded as the “father of civil engineering.”
As a boy, Smeaton built his own hand tools, casting and forging them himself, and made a small lathe for turning wood. He also built a steam engine, which was so successful that he pumped his father’s fish pond dry.
At the age of 16 Smeaton joined his father’s law office, where he began legal studies. At 18 he traveled to London to formally enter the legal profession. However, he was much more interested in mechanical crafts and convinced his father to allow him to become an instrument maker. At the age of 26 he opened his own instrument shop. Among others, Smeaton invented a pyrometer to study material expansion.
Smeaton read prolifically about science, and also attended meetings of the Royal Society of London. He was elected a fellow of the Society in 1753 and began contributing articles to its Philosophical Transactions. Smeaton visited Europe in 1754, studying canals, harbors and mills; his trip led to the turning point in his career.
In 1759 he was awarded the Copley Gold Medal for an experimental investigation into windmills and watermills; he showed how to obtain water wheels’ maximum efficiency. He later designed and constructed many water wheels; Smeaton’s work fully developed this traditional source of water power. The resulting increase in efficiency in water power contributed to the Industrial Revolution. Moreover, it was not until water wheels were replaced by turbines that Smeaton’s work was eclipsed.
In “An Experimental Enquiry Concerning the Natural Powers of Water and Wind to Turn Mills and Other Machines Depending on Circular Motion,” a paper Smeaton published in 1759, he developed the concepts and data that became the basis for the Smeaton coefficient, which was the lift equation used by the Wright brothers.
In the 1740s-50s, Great Britain was increasing its naval and civilian fleets, and navigational aids along and in its coastal waters were vital. Eddystone in the English Channel near Plymouth was a key site. It was a partially, and sometimes wholly, submerged reef in an area of many storms; the reef was a frequent cause of shipwrecks. Two previous lighthouses there had been destroyed by the sea.
Recommended for the job by the Royal Society, Smeaton designed the third Eddystone Lighthouse during 1755-59. His 72-foot-tall lighthouse became known as Smeaton’s Tower. The lighthouse gained prominence for its innovative design; Smeaton modeled its shape on an oak tree.
More importantly, though, in designing the structure, Smeaton pioneered the use of hydraulic lime in concrete, using pebbles and powdered brick as aggregate. This form of mortar was capable of “setting” underwater. Therefore, Smeaton is a principal in the history, rediscovery of, and development of modern cement. By identifying the compositional requirements needed to obtain “hydraulicity” in lime, his work ultimately led to the invention of Portland cement. Subsequently, Portland cement led to the re-emergence of concrete as a modern building material, again largely due to Smeaton.
He also developed a technique involving blocks of granite in the building of the lighthouse. The concrete blocks were secured through the use of dovetail joints and marble dowels. Smeaton’s construction techniques became the standard for such wave-swept structures.
The lighthouse remained in use on the dangerous rocks of Eddystone as a navigational aid until 1877. At that point the rock underlying the structure’s foundations had eroded; the foundations and stub of Smeaton’s lighthouse are still at that site, near the fourth and current lighthouse. The upper part of Smeaton’s lighthouse was shipped to the vicinity of Plymouth on England’s south coast and placed on a base there as a memorial to Smeaton.
The use of steam
In 1712 Thomas Newcomen invented the steam engine (also known as the atmospheric engine). The engine was operated by condensing steam drawn into a cylinder, which created a partial vacuum that allowed atmospheric pressure to push a piston into the cylinder. It was the first practical device to harness steam to do mechanical work. Newcomen engines were used throughout Britain and Europe, primarily to pump water out of underground mines. Hundreds were constructed throughout the 18th century, and the Newcomen engine was essential to the Industrial Revolution.
Smeaton began tinkering with a Newcomen steam engine; he was the first engineer to analyze the engine’s operation and to seek methods to increase its efficiency. By 1770 he had doubled the engine’s original efficiency, and he later almost tripled it. Although its efficiency was still very low; by working on the engine’s design Smeaton created the best steam engine available until James Watt’s came to market.
Mechanical and civil engineering
Using his mechanical engineering skills, Smeaton created a water engine for the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in 1761 and a watermill at Alston, Cumbria in 1767 (some also credit Smeaton with inventing the cast-iron axle shaft for water wheels). Smeaton also built the Chimney Mill in Newcastle upon Tyne, which was the first five-sailed smock mill in Great Britain.
Deciding that he wanted to focus on what he termed civil engineering, Smeaton began work on an extensive series of commissions, including:
- Calder and Hebble Navigation (1758-70)
- Coldstream Bridge over the River Tweed (1763-66)
- Improvements to the River Lee Navigation (1765-70)
- Smeaton’s Pier in St Ives, Cornwall (1767-70)
- Perth Bridge over the River Tay in Perth (1766-71)
- Ripon Canal (1766-1773)
- Smeaton’s Viaduct, which carries the A616 road (part of the original Great North Road) over the River Trent between Newark and South Muskham in Nottinghamshire (1768-70)
- Forth and Clyde Canal from Grangemouth to Glasgow (1768-77)
- Langley on Tyne smelt mill, with Nicholas Walton, acting as receivers to the Greenwich Hospital, London (1768)
- Banff harbor (1770-75)
- Aberdeen bridge (1775-80)
- Peterhead harbor (1775-81)
- Nent Force Level (1776-77)
- Cardington Bridge (1778)
- Harbor works at Ramsgate (retention basin 1776-83; jetty 1788-1792)
- Hexham Bridge (1777-90); completed by Robert Mylne in 1793
- Birmingham and Fazeley Canal (1782-89)
- St. Austell’s Charlestown harbor in Cornwall (1792)
Of the projects listed above, Smeaton’s construction of the Forth and Clyde Canal in Scotland is among the most significant. The canal opened a waterway between the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea. And his bridges at Perth, Banff and Coldstream improved transportation, as did the harbors that he created or improved.
The majority of Smeaton’s projects were water-related. In 1789, Smeaton applied an idea developed originally by Denis Papin. By using a force pump to maintain the pressure and fresh air inside a diving bell, Smeaton improved the bell. His improved bell was built for the Hexham Bridge project but was not intended for underwater work. However, in 1790 he improved the bell’s design and safety, by fitting an air pump to the bell. This enabled construction workers to use it underwater on the breakwater at Ramsgate Harbor. Until diving helmets and then compressed air tanks were developed, Smeaton’s diving bell was widely used for the construction of bridges and harbor works.
The profession of civil engineering
Smeaton established the Society of Civil Engineers in 1771. He coined the term “civil engineers” to distinguish members of that profession from military engineers who were graduates of the Royal Military Academy. The Society was a forerunner of the Institution of Civil Engineers, which was established in 1818. In 1830 the Institution was renamed the Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers in his honor. The world’s first engineering society, it remains the oldest still in existence.
Smeaton was also the first expert witness to appear in an English court. Because of his engineering expertise, he testified on a case related to the “silting-up of the harbor at Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk in 1782.”
John Smeaton died in 1792 after suffering a stroke while walking in the garden of his family home at Austhorpe. He was 68.
Smeaton was a leader in the transition from wind-and-water power to steam power. He is credited with a number of technical innovations such as the extensive use of cast-iron parts in moving machinery and others outlined above.
Among his accomplishments was leading the transformation of what had been the handicraft tradition of engineering (based upon practices handed down from masters to apprentices), “into a profession which applied experimental science to a craft.”
Smeaton is one of six civil engineers featured in a stained glass window that was unveiled in Westminster Abbey in 1862. In addition, a memorial stone commemorating Smeaton was unveiled in that church by the Smeatonian Society of Engineers in 1994.