John Smeaton

A recent article in the Yorkshire Evening Post regarding Leeds 2023 City of Culture said that one of the projects which has been given funding is an Arts Project to be run by the charity Foxglove, celebrating the life of John Smeaton, as 2024 is the 300th anniversary of his birth. Our society has always had a high regard for Smeaton and published a booklet about his life in 2007 as part of an inclusive festival marking Leeds' 800th birthday.

The following is a summary taken from this booklet and is intended to remind people how this remarkable 18th century engineer, who was regarded as a giant in his times, became largely ignored by later historians who wrote volumes about the engineers of the 19th century.

The legacy left by John Smeaton has resonated even into the 21st century, and this short essay is intended in a modest way, to honour that legacy and highlight why Smeaton is indeed worthy of being honoured in 2023


John Smeaton is perhaps most famous for designing and building the Eddystone Lighthouse, although this is only one of many civil engineering projects he was involved with during his lifetime. He was born at Austhorpe Lodge in Austhorpe, East Leeds on June 8th 1724 and died there on October 28th 1792, having spent over 30 years working mostly from his home at Austhorpe Lodge

He first referred to himself in print as a 'Civil Engineer' in 1768 and on the 15th March 1771, became a founder member of the 'Society of Civil Engineers' later to become known as the 'Smeatonian Society'. The final year of his life was spent at Grays Inn in London until June, when he again returned to Austhorpe. In September while walking in the grounds of his home he suffered a stroke, but recovered his faculties fairly quickly. He became resigned and cheerful, taking pleasure in his family and dictating letters to his friends, but died within six weeks of the stroke on 28th October 1792.
Mary Dixon, his daughter later remarked: 'The end he had through life deserved, was granted; the body sunk, but the mind shone to the last, and in the way good men aspire to, he closed a life, active as useful, amiable as revered'.

The enigma of Smeaton's motivation, and determination that his work be carried out to the highest possible standards, is that it he was never influenced by personal monetary gain, or nurtured a desire for fame. In a letter to James Watt in March 1778 he wrote: ' I have already been at hard and incessant Labour for 30 years in which Time I have had some success for myself as well as others. But I never was of the Kind of enterprising turn, as to employ my head to the making a profit by the Labours of other mens Hands'.

He declined many tempting offers designed to deviate him from his chosen path. The Russian Princess, Catherina Dashkov offered him incredible wealth and fortune if he left England to enter the service of the Empress, Catherine the Great, but he again refused stating that: 'no money would induce him to leave his home, his friends, and his pursuits in England; and though not rich, he had enough and to spare'. Astounded by his refusal she replied: Sir, I honour you! You may have your equal in abilities perhaps, but in character you stand alone. The English Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, was mistaken, and my Sovereign has the misfortune to find one man who has not his price'.

Many accolades of admiration were given to Smeaton after his death. James Watt affectionately referred to him as 'Father Smeaton', and in a letter to Sir Joseph Banks wrote, 'In justice to him we should observe that he lived before Rennie, and before there was one-tenth of the artists there are now. His example has made engineers of us all'.

Speaking to Samuel Smiles in 1858, Robert Stevenson said: 'Smeaton was the greatest philosopher in our profession this country has yet produced. He was indeed a great man, possessing a truly Baconian mind, for he was an incessant experimenter…His mind was as clear as chrystal, and his demonstrations will be found to be mathematically conclusive….when young men ask me, as they frequently do, what they should read, I invariably say, Go to Smeaton's philosophical papers; read them; master them thoroughly; and nothing will be of greater service to you. Smeaton was indeed, a very great man'.

One of his greatest legacies lay in the influence he had with the great engineers who followed him such as Telford, Watt, Brunel, Stevenson and others. At the present time over 1200 of his drawings are preserved in six volumes with the Royal Society, covering many different aspects of science and engineering, including Windmills, Watermills, Steam Engines, Bridges, Canal Works, Sluices, and Harbours. A design worthy of mention perhaps is the Diving Bell he designed, which was used for inspecting the foundations of Hexham Bridge and Ramsgate Harbour, where he personally descended and remained underwater for 45 minutes inspecting the foundations.

William Jessop and Henry Eastburn, in turn apprenticed to Smeaton, both became eminent engineers in their own right. Jessop became involved in many projects including canals, docks and railways and is credited with the idea of placing the flange on the inside of a railway wheel, which many think was suggested to him by Smeaton when wagons were hauled along iron rails by horses. Eastburn married Elizabeth Simon on 18th October 1779, at St Mary's Church, Whitkirk, and took up residence in the parish with his new wife.

Maybe, next time we see a canal, or a masonry bridge, or a harbour, or a major superstructure being raised in one of our cities, we could spare a thought for the man who whose abilities and expertise formed the foundations for the modern civil engineering profession in England.

He was John Smeaton, FRS, the first to call himself a Civil Engineer.