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No. 2194:
John Smeaton

Today, the engineer who did everything. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The late-eighteenth-century Industrial Revolution gave us remarkable engineers — Watt, Telford, Wedgwood, Cort, Hargreaves. But most remarkable of all was John Smeaton. He touched every emergent technology in a remarkable era of human history. 

In 1741, the 17-year-old Smeaton met Henry Hindley, a famed clock and instrument maker. Smeaton had, by then, developed great mechanical ability in his own workshop. The older Hindley showed a degree of collegial confidence in the teenaged boy that changed his life. Smeaton had been headed for a career in law. In fact, the next year he even left his home in Leeds to study law in London. 

But, when he returned two years later, he threw his full energies, into, not law, but the study of science and mechanics. When he was 24, Smeaton set himself up as a maker of what were then called philosophical instruments — clocks, astrolabes, transits, and the like.

But that was just a way station. Next he took an interest in water wheels, and was soon a consulting engineer on water power projects. Next it was bridges. At the age of only 32, he was put in charge of the third attempt to design and build an Eddystone Lighthouse. A light was desperately needed to keep ships off the rocks near the mouth of the English Channel. The first lighthouse had perished in a storm, 53 years earlier. A second one had burned just recently. This third try had to get it right. Smeaton cooked up an ingenious foundation of interlocking concrete slabs and built a light that was still in use over a century later. 

He built the Calder River into a fine canal system. He drained the fens of East Anglia. He secured the foundations of London Bridge. He followed his work on wind and water mills, into broad studies of power production. While Watt was working kinks out of his new condensing steam engine design, Smeaton was analyzing and improving the old Newcomen engines. The year before Boulton and Watt went into production, Smeaton built the most powerful, and most efficient, engine in the world. As a result, another century passed before Watt's condensing engines could completely displace the older ones. Smeaton also won prizes for scientific work on energy conservation — in the collision of inelastic bodies as well as in water, wind, and steam driven power machinery. 

He did so much, and we might well wonder what genie from what bottle had been at his side. Well, I think I know. Smeaton never managed from afar. He did his own drafting and his drawings were works of art. He based his fees on time spent, never on project costs. He achieved greatness, but never embraced greatness. He was an artist before he was an expert. He had the humility needed to stay curious. He was, quite simply, the soul of the English Revolution — that is, of the Industrial Revolution of the human lot.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

A.W. Skempton, Smeaton, John (1724-1792). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004, Vol. 50. pp. 981-985.

John Smeaton, FRS. A. W. Skempton, ed. (London: Thomas Telford, Ltd., 1981)

John Smeaton
John Smeaton (1724-1792) Notice the Eddystone Lighthouse in the background. (Public domain image, courtesy of Wikipedia)