Leeds nostalgia: The life of John Smeaton, father of civil engineering

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This week, as part of our occasional series on Leeds Greats, we profile John Smeaton, known as the father of civil engineering, a man who was there at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and before the birth of the railways.

He is credited with inventing cement and influencing the design of buildings but had wider interests, including astronomy. He was held in such high regard at the peak of his career that no major engineering work in the country was embarked upon without him first being consulted.

Smeaton is a link to our distant history. Born in June 1724, he lived at Austhorpe, then to the east of Leeds in a lodge built by his grandfather, John More, in 1694.

It was the Age of Enlightenment, there was a fever for the educated classes - into which Smeaton was fortunate enough to have been born - to openly question the doctrines of the church and there was a lust to experiment and indulge in the new scientific disciplines.

Smeaton was educated by his mother before attending Leeds Grammar School in 1734. He had a brother and a sister but both died young, his younger brother William was just five years old while his sister, Hannah, who was born the year William died, passed away aged 21. As a young boy he was said to have a great interest in building models and machinery - he made working windmills and a water pump, which was so successful that when he tested it on his father’s fish ponds, it virtually emptied them, much to the annoyance of his father.

Still, his prodigious gifts did not go unnoticed and his father built him a workshop to further his skills.

After leaving the grammar school, Smeaton was sent to London to study law but he quickly grew tired of this and, against his father’s wishes, abandoned that career to pursue his passion for engineering. Nonetheless, he made several important acquaintances while in London, including the painter Benjamin Wilson and William Watson, an early pioneer of the use of electricity.

He went to live in London in 1748 and within a year, his father died. In 1752, he was admitted to the Royal Society. In the following years, he designed dozens of water and windmills. He travelled widely on the Continent and in Scotland and England, visiting Cornwall, where he became aware of one of the biggest engineering problems of the day - how to build a lighthouse on treacherous Eddystone Rocks. Two previous attempts to erect structures there had failed miserably. It was here Smeaton discovered a water-proof mortar, by experiment, which would go on to become modern cement, altering the way buildings were made forever. He led the lighthouse build himself. One example of his resolve was when he fell onto rocks, dislocating his thumb. In an instant, he grabbed it with his other hand and snapped it back into position. The lighthouse was completed in 1759, a monumental achievement in its day - 120 years on it was dismantled stone by stone and rebuilt on Plymouth Hoe.

He shunned notoriety and returned to Austhorpe around 1760, undertaking engineering projects on the River Calder and nearby canals, nearby fens, church clocks and hydraulic rams used at Temple Newsam.He died in October 1792 following a stroke.

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