Smeaton, John

views updated


(b. Austhorpe, England, 8 June 1724: d, Austhorpe, 28 October 1792)

civil engineering, applied mechanics.

One of the foremost British engineers of the eighteenth century, Smeaton also gained a reputation as a man of science and distinguished himself through experimental research on applied hydraulics. He was descended from a family of Scots, one of whom, Thomas Smeton, turned to Protestantism late in the sixteenth century and held important positions in the church and in the University of Glasgow. By the time of Smeaton’s birth, the family resided near Leeds, where his father, William, practiced law. Smeaton was encouraged to follow a legal career, and after a sound elementary education he served in his father’s office and was later sent to London for further employment and training in the courts. An early inclination toward the mechanical arts soon prevailed, however: and, with his father’s consent, he became a maker of scientific instruments, a pursuit that allowed ample scope for both his scientific interests and his mechanical ingenuity.

Early in the 1750’s Smeaton began the experiments that constituted his chief contribution to science; and during this period he also busied himself with several technical innovations, including a novel pyrometer with which he studied the expansive characteristics of various materials. The pace of industrial and commercial progress was quickening in Britain, however, and the attention of technical men was being directed increasingly toward large-scale engineering works. From 1756 to 1759 Smeaton was occupied with his best-known achievement, the rebuilding of the Eddystone lighthouse. By the end of the decade it had become evident that structural engineering and river and harbor works were more profitable than making scientific instruments. Accordingly, Smeaton established himself as a consultant in these fields; indeed, it was he who adopted the term “civil engineer” to distinguish civilian consultants and designers from the increasing number of military engineers who were being graduated from the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. During the last thirty-five years of his life he was responsible for many engineering projects, including bridges, steam engine facilities, power stations run by wind or water, mill structures and machinery, and river and harbor improvements.

Smeaton became a fellow of the Royal Society, a member of the Royal Society Club, and an occasional guest at meetings of the Lunar Society. He also was a charter member of the first professional engineering society, the Society of Civil Engineers (not to be confused with the later Institution of Civil Engineers), founded in 1771; after his death it became known as the Smeatonian Society. Its founding reflected the growing sense of profession-alization among British civilian engineers during the eighteenth century.

In 1759 Smeaton’s engineering and scientific careers were crowned with outstanding success. In that year he completed the Eddystone lighthouse, which confirmed his reputation as an engineer, and published a paper on waterwheels and windmills, for which is received the Copley Medal of the Royal Society

In His research on waterwheels Smeaton reopened the question of the relative efficiency of undershot wheels (which operate through impulse of the water against the blades) and overshot wheels (where the water flows from above and moves the wheel by the force of its weight). Through experiments on a model wheel he showed that, contrary to common opinion, overshot wheels are twice as efficient as undershot. Beyond this empirical generalization Smeaton displayed his scientific bent by speculating on the cause greater loss of energy (“mechanic power,” as the termed it) in the undershot wheel and by concluding that it was consumed in turbulence— “nonelastic bodies [water], when acting by their impulse collision, communicate only a part of their original power; the other part being spent in changing figure in consequence of the stroke.”

Following this initial success in research on applied mechanics, Smeaton’s interests drifted toward natural philosophy and he devote two further experimental investigations to the vis viva dispute and the laws of collision. He maintained that these seemingly abstract studies were of importance in practice, inasmuch as the conclusions of natural philosophers might, if incorrect, mislead practical men to adopt unsound procedures The results he obtained, however, were more consequential in theory than in practice, for they confirmed not only the belief that mechanical effort could indeed be “lost” but also that mv2 (vis viva)was a measure of “mechanic power.” Smeaton recognized that his conclusions were in opposition to those favored by the disciples of Newton, and he diplomatically specified that both mv and mv2 were useful values when properly interpreted.

Smeaton’s career provides an early example the interaction of engineering and applied science. His technical interests influenced the direction of his scientific research; and he used the results of his research in his own waterwheel designs, consistently favoring breast wheels and overshot wheels and almost never using the undershot system. There is reason to believe that Smeaton’s work led other designers to foresake the long-preferred undershot wheel. Moreover, the continued economic importance of waterwheels contributed a sense of urgency to the recurrent controversy over the measure of “force”; and in these discussions Smeaton’s research and his support of the vis viva school of thought played a prominent role.

Smeaton also performed extensive tests on the experimental Newcomen engine, optimizing its design and significantly increasing its efficiency. These studies, however, never rose above the level of systematic empiricism and, moreover, were soon overshadowed by James Watt’s invention of the separate condenser. A few minor contributions to observational astronomy rounded out Smeaton’s scientific work.


I. Original Works. Many of Smeaton’s papers were collected and published posthumously: Reports of the Late John Smeaton, 4 vols. (London, 1812–1814). Vol. IV, The Miscellaneous Papers of John Smeaton (1814), contains the papers he contributed to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, of which the most important are his Copley Medal paper, “An Experimental Enquiry Concerning the Natural Powers of Water and Wind to Turn Mills and Other Machines Depending on a Circular Motion,” 51 (1759–1760), 100–174: “An Experimental Examination of the Quantity and Proportion of Mechanic Power Necessary to Be Employed in Giving Different Degrees of Velocity to Heavy Bodies From a State of Rest,” 66 (1776), 450–475; and “New Fundamental Experiments Upon the Collision of Bodies,” 72 (1782), 337–354. These three papers were reprinted together as Experimental Enquiry Concerning the Natural Powers of Wind and Water (London, 1794) and are also conveniently collected in Thomas Tredgold, ed., Tracts on Hydraulics (London, 1826). P. S. Girard translated them into French as Recherches expérimentales sur l’eau et le vent (Paris, 1810). For the results of his experiments on the steam engine, see John Farey, A Treatise on the Steam Engine (London, 1827), 158 ff.

John Smeaton’s, Diary of His Journey to the Low Countries 1755. Newcomen Society for the Study of the History of Engineering and Technology, Extra Publication no.4 (London, 1938); and “Description of the Statical Hydraulic Engine, Invented and Made by the Late Mr. William Westgarth, of Colecleugh in the County of Northumberland,” in Transactions of the Royal Society of Arts,5 (1787). 185–210, throw some additional light on the engineering sources of Smeaton’s scientific interests.

II. Secondary Literature. The fullest biography of Smeaton is still Samuel Smiles, “Life of John Smeaton,” in Lives of the Engineers, 3 vols. (London, 1861–1862). II, 1–89. John Holmes, who knew Smeaton well, published A Short Narrative of the Genius, Life and Works of the Late Mr. J. Smeaton, Civil Engineer (London, 1793). For a recent biographical article, see Gerald Bowman, “John Smeaton—Consulting Engineer,” in Engineering Heritage, 2 vols. (New York, 1966), II. 8–12. None of these treats Smeaton’s scientific work adequately.

D.S.L. Cardwell has interpreted Smeaton’s research in the context of the developing relationship between power technology and thermodynamics; see “Some Factors in the Early Development of the Concepts of Power, Work and Energy.” in British Journal for the History of Science, 3 (1966–1967), 209–224; and From Watt to Clausius (Ithaca, N.Y., 1971), see index. The influence of Smeaton’s research on the controversy over the measurement of “force” may be seen in Peter Ewart, “On the Measure of Moving Force,” in Memoirs of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester, 2nd ser., 2 (1813), 105–258. On his water power engineering, see Paul N, Wilson. “The Waterwheels of John Smeaton,” in Transactions. Newcomen Society for the Study of the History of Engineering and Technology, 30 (1955–1957), 25–48.

The little that is known of the Society of Civil Engineers in the eighteenth century is presented fully in T. E. Allibone, “The Club of the Royal College of Physicians, the Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers and Their Relationship to the Royal Society Club,” in Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 22 (1967), 186–192; S. B. Donkin, “The Society of Civil Engineers (Smeatonians),” in Transactions. Newcomen Society for the Study of the History of Engineering and Technology, 17 (1936–1937), 51–71; and Esther Clark Wright, “The Early Smeatonians,” ibid., 18 (1937–1938), 101–110.

Harold Dorn

John Smeaton

views updated

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

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 Sources

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

John Smeaton

views updated

John Smeaton


Scottish-English Inventor

John Smeaton's impact on civil engineering in eighteenth-century England was so significant that the Institute of Civil Engineers—of which Smeaton had been a founding member in 1771—changed its name to the Smeatonian Society after his death in 1792. The results of his work, including mills, bridges, and harbors, were to be found throughout the landscape of England during the early industrial era.

Though Smeaton's family was Scottish, they lived in England, where he was born in 1724. His father, an attorney, expected him to follow in the legal profession, but Smeaton had no interest in law. His fascination lay entirely with machines, and he chose to pursue a career in civil engineering.

In 1753 Smeaton was elected to membership in the Royal Society, and two years later was selected to design a new lighthouse near Plymouth, England. For the lighthouse, completed in 1759, Smeaton developed a new variety of limestone-and-clay cement that would set under water.

Also in 1759, Smeaton published a paper on water mills, a principal source of power during the early Industrial Revolution. His paper dealt with the difference between undershot mills, or mills that derived their power from water flowing beneath them, and overshot mills. The latter is more widely known, thanks in part to Smeaton, who showed that an overshot mill is much more efficient than an undershot mill: due to gravity, the power produced is much greater when water flows over a wheel than when it flows under it. These findings won Smeaton the Copley Award in 1759, and he went on to build 43 mills throughout England.

From 1757 on, Smeaton designed a number of canal and bridge projects, and in the 1760s created a water-pressure engine for pumping water. The latter would be replaced a few years later, when James Watt (1736-1819) invented his condensing steam engine. Smeaton also invented a tidal pump, installed at London Bridge in 1767, for supplying water to subscribers, and in 1769 invented a metal boring machine. In building Ramsgate harbor in 1774, Smeaton made several improvements to the existing design of the diving bell, adding an air pump. He spent his remaining years experimenting with steam engines and making improvements to them. He died in 1792 at Austhorpe, Leeds, England.


Smeaton, John

views updated

Smeaton, John (1724–92). One of the founders of the civil engineering profession. Born in Leeds, where his father was a lawyer, Smeaton demonstrated a practical aptitude which won him rapid recognition as a craftsman and instrument-maker. He was commissioned to rebuild the lighthouse on Eddystone Rock, 15 miles south of Plymouth, and completed this in 1759 with a remarkably innovative design which set the pattern for all subsequent offshore lighthouses. It was after this that he set up a consultancy business, styling himself a ‘civil engineer’ to distinguish his profession from that of the military engineers. His commissions included canals such as the Forth–Clyde canal in Scotland, many distinguished masonry bridges such as those at Perth and Coldstream, harbours such as that at Ramsgate, and a succession of water-mills and steam-engines. In 1771 he took the lead in establishing the Society of Civil Engineers, the first professional institution for engineers.

R. Angus Buchanan

Smeaton, John

views updated

Smeaton, John (1724–92). English civil engineer and inventor of Scots descent. He travelled on the Continent in 1754 to study canals and harbours, and in 1755–6 he designed his Eddystone Lighthouse, near Plymouth, Devon, using a system of dovetailing the stones together, including the courses and the foundations in the rock. The building was completed in 1759, but was replaced in 1877–82. He designed several bridges, the best of which are in Scotland, including those at Banff, Coldstream, and Perth, using segmental arches, and with circular perforations in the spandrels. He also designed the Forth and Clyde Canal (begun 1768, completed 1790).


Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004);
Skempton et al. (eds.) (1981);
Smeaton (1813, 1837)