John Smeaton Biography (1724-1792)

civil engineer

John Smeaton, like so many of his contemporaries, made a name for himself inseveral fields. He can best be described as a professional inventor. Considered to be the founder of instrument making in Britain, he is best remembered for his work as a civil engineer.

Smeaton was born in England of Scottish ancestry-- many of the engineers thatfollowed in his footsteps were Scotsmen. Scotland is a rocky country and stone masonry was a part of daily life there. His father was an attorney and gave his son a start in his law firm. This profession did not appeal to Smeaton,and he soon left it to pursue a profession of a more mechanical nature. He began writing papers on instrument-making and by 1753 was elected to the RoyalSociety. He was selected in 1755 to design a new lighthouse for the Eddystone Rocks near Plymouth, England, and the project was completed in 1759. It included stone blocks with interlocking dovetails. He also developed a cement made of limestone and clay that could be set under water.

Smeaton next went to work on water mills, which were the main source of powerat that time. His experiments led to a major paper written in 1759. His tests proved that overshot waterwheels were much more efficient than undershot. The advantage was the result of gravity, which is greater in falling water than in flowing water. His work earned him the Copley Award in 1759. Smeaton went on to build forty-three mills, the most significant being the mill at the Carron Company ironworks in 1769. Smeaton invented a tidal pump at London Bridge for the supply of water to subscribers in 1767. It was more compact and efficient than another pump installed earlier at the same site. In the late 1760s, he developed a water pressure engine that pumped water to a nobleman's residence. It was superseded a few years later by James Watt's condensing steamengine. Smeaton also made improvements to Edmund Halley's diving bell by adding an air pump to it, and used it in the construction of Ramsgate harbor in1774. Smeaton engineered several canal and bridge projects from 1757 onward.These included the Forth and Clyde Canal in Scotland. He also invented a metal boring machine in 1769.

In his later years, Smeaton experimented with the steam engine and made improvements to it. He died in 1792 at Austhorpe, Leeds, the place of his birth. His influence changed the thinking of many of his peers to such a degree thatthe Institute of Civil Engineers, founded in 1771 and of which Smeaton was afounding member, was renamed the Smeatonian Society. In his wake came many noted British civil engineers, most of them from Scotland, who built roads, bridges, harbors and canals all over the British Isles and the European Continent. Among these were Thomas Telford, John McAdam, John Rennie, Marc Isambard Brunel, and Isambard K. Brunel.

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