Smeaton, John

, a very celebrated mechanic and civil engineer, was born May 28, 1724, at Austhorpe near Leeds, where his relations still reside. From his early childhood he discovered a strong propensity to the arts in which he afterwards excelled, was more delighted in talking with workmen than in playing with other boys; and surprised, or occasionally alarmed his friends by mechanical efforts disproportioned to his years; sometimes being at the summit of a building to erect a kind of mill, and sometimes at the side of a well, employed in the construction of a pump. When he was about fourteen or fifteen he had constructed a lathe to turn rose-woik, and presented many of his friends with specimens of its operation in wood and ivory. “In the year 1742,” says his biographer, “I spent a month at his father’s house, and being intended myself for a mechanical employment, and a few years younger than he was, J could not but view his works with astonishment. He forged his iron and steel, and melted his metal; he had tools of every sort for working in wood, ivory, and metals. He had made a lathe by which he had cut a perpetual screw in brass, a thing little known at that day, and which, I believe, was the invention of Mr. Henry Hindley of York, with whom I served my apprenticeship. Mr. Hindley was a man of the most communicative disposition, a great lover of mechanics, and of the most fertile genius. Mr. Srneaton soon became acquainted with him, and they spent many a night at Mr. Hindley ‘s house, ’till day-light, conversing on those subjects.

The father of Mr. Stneaton was an attorney, and wished to bring him up to the same profession. Mr. Smeaton | therefore, came up to London in 1742, and attended the courts in Westminster-hull; but, finding that the law did not suit the bent of his genius, he wrote a strong memorial on the subject to his father, who had the good sense to allow him from that time to pursue the path which nature pointed for him. Early in 1750 he had lodgings in Turnstile, Holborn, and was commencing the business of a mathematical-instrument-maker. In 1751 be invented a machine to measure a ship’s way at sea, and a compass of peculiar construction, touched by Dr. Knight’s artificial magnets: and made two voyages with Dr. Knight, to ascertain the merit of his contrivances. In 1753 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and the number of his papers inserted in the Transactions of that body sufficiently evinces how highly he deserved that distinction. In 1759 he received, by an unanimous vote, their gold medal, for his pape/ entitled “An Experimental Enquiry concerning the natural Powers of Wind and Water to turn Mills, and other MacJiines depending on a circular Motion.” This paper, he says, was the result of experiments made on working models, in 1752 and 1753, but not communicated to the society till 1759; before which time he had not an opportunity of putting the effect of these experiments into real practice, in a variety of cases, and for various purposes, so as to assure the society that he had found them to answer. These experiments discovered that wind and water could be made to do one-third more than was before known, and they were made, we may observe, in his 27th anil 28th years.

In 1754 he visited Holland, and travelling on foot, or in the trechschuyts, made himself acquainted with most of the works of art in the Low Countries. In December 1752 the Eddystone lighthouse was burned down, and Mr. Smeaton was recommended to the proprietor, by lord Macclesfield, then president of the Royal Society, as the person best qualified to rebuild it. This great work he undertook immediately, and completed it in the summer of 1759. An ample and most interesting account is given of the whole transaction in a folio volume, published by himself, in 1791, entitled “A narrative of the building and a description of the construction of the Eddystone Lighthouse with stone, to which is subjoined an Appendix, giving some account of the Lighthouse on the Spurn Point, built upon a sand. By John Smeaton, civil | engineer, F. R. S.” This publication may be considered as containing an accurate history of four years of his life, in which the originality of his genius, with his great alacrity, industry, and perseverance, are fully displayed. It contains also an account of the former edifices constructed in that place, and is made, by the ingenuity of the writer, an entertaining, as well as an instructive work.

Indeed his building the Eddystone lighthouse, were there no other monument of his fame, would establish his character. The Eddystone rocks have obtained their name from the great variety of contrary sets of the tide or current in their vicinity. They are situated nearly S. S. W. from the middle of Plymouth Sound. Their distance from the port of Plymouth is about 14 miles. They are almost in the line which joins the Start and the Lizard points; and as they lie nearly in the direction of vessels coasting up and down the channel, they were unavoidably, before the establishment of a lighthouse there, very dangerous, and often fatal to ships. Their situation with regard to the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic is such, that they lie open to the swells of the bay and ocean, from all the southwestern points of the compass; so that all the heavy seas from the south-west quarter come uncontrolled upon the Eddystone rocks, and break upon them with the utmost fury. Sometimes, xvhen the sea is to all appearance smooth and even, and its surface unruffled by the slightest breeze, the ground swell meeting the slope of the rocks, the sea beats upon them in a frightful manner, so as not only to obstruct any work being done on the rock, or even landing upon it, when, figuratively speaking, you might go to sea in a walnut-shell. That circumstances fraught with danger surrounding it should lead mariners to wish for a lighthouse, is not wonderful; but the danger attending the erection leads us to wonder that any one could be found hardy enough to undertake it. Such a man was first found in the person of Mr. H. Winstanley, who, in 3696, was furnished by the Trinity-house with the necessary powers. In 1700 it was finished; but in the great storm of November 1703, it was destroyed, and the projector perished in the ruins. In 1709 another, upon a different construction, was erected by a Mr. lludyerd, which, in 1755, was unfortunately consumed by fire. The next building was under the direction of Mr. Smeaton, who, having considered the errors of the former constructions, | has judiciously guarded against them, and erected a building, the demolition of which seems little to be dreaded, unless the rock on which it is erected should perish with it. But although Mr. Saieaton completed the building of the Eddystone lighthouse in a manner that did him so much credit, it does not appear that he soon got into full business as a civil engineer; for in 17G4, while he was in Yorkshire, he offered himself a candidate for the place of one of the receivers of the Derwentvvater Restate. This place was conferred upon him at a full board in Greenwich hospital, the last day of the same year, notwithstanding a powerful opposition. He was very serviceable in it, by improving the mills, and the estates belonging to the hospital; but in 1775 his private business was so much increased that he wished to resign, though he was prevailed upon to hold it two years longer. He was now concerned in many important public works. He made the river Calcler navigable; a work that required great skill and judgment, on account of the very impetuous floods to which that river is liable. He planned and superintended the execution of the great canal in Scotland, which joins the two seas; and was supposed to prevent the falling of Londonbridge, when that event was apprehended, on the opening of the great arch. In 1771 he became joint proprietor, with his friend Mr. Holmes, of the works for supplying Greenwich and Deptford with water, an undertaking which they succeeded in making useful to the public and beneficial to the proprietors, which it had never been before. Mr. Smeaton, in the course of his employments, constructed a vast variety of mills, to the entire satisfaction and great advantage of the owners; and he improved whatever he took under his consideration, of the mechanical or philosophical kind. Among many instances of this, we may mention his improvements in the air-pump, the pyrometer, the hygrometer, and the steam engine. He was constantly consulted in parliament, and frequently in the courts of law on difficult questions of science; and his strength of judgment, perspicuity of expression, and strict integrity, always appeared on those occasions to the highest advantage. About 1785, finding his health begin to deciinej Mr. Smeaton wished as much as possible to withdraw himself from business, and to employ his leisure in drawing up and publishing an account of his principal inventions and works. His narrative of the Eddystone | lighthouse, already mentioned, was a part of this design, and the only part which he was able to complete. Notwithstanding his wish to retire from business, he could not resist the solicitation of his frit’nd Mr. Aubert, then chairman of the trustees for Ram&gate harbour, to accept the place of engineer to that harbour; and the improvements actually made, as well as his report published by the trustees in 179l, evince the attention which he paid to that important business.

On the 16th of September 1792, Mr. Smeaton was suddenly struck with paralysis, as he was walking in his garden at Austhorpe, and remaining in a very infirm state, though in full possession of his faculties, died on the 28th of the ensuing month. The character of this celebrated engineer may properly be given in the words of his friend Mr. Holmes. “Mr. Smeaton had a warmth of expression, that might appear to those who did not know him to border on harshness, but those more intimately acquainted with him, knew it arose from the intense application of his mind, which was always in the pursuit of truth, or engaged in investigating difficult subjects. He would sometimes break out hastily, when any thing was said that did not tally with his ideas; and he would not give up any tiling he argued for, till his mind was convinced by sound reasoning. In all the social duties of life, he was exemplary; he was a most affectionate husband, a good father, a warm, zealous, and sincere friend, always ready to assist those he respected, and often before it was pointed out to him in what way he could serve them. He was a lover and encourager of merit, wherever he found it; and many men are in a great measure indebted for their present situation to his assistance and advice. As a companion he was always entertaining and instructive; and none could spend their time in his company without improvement.” As a man,“adds Mr. H.I always admired and respected him, and his memory will ever be most dear to me." A second edition of his narrative of the Eddystone, was published in 1793, under the revisal of his friend Mr. Aubert: but without any addition. The papers of Mr. Smeaton were purchased of his executors by sir Joseph Banks, under the voluntary promise of accounting to them, for the profits of whatever should be published. Accordingly under the inspection of a society of civil engineers, founded originally by Mr. Smeaton, three 4to volumes of his reports have been published 1797, &c. with a life prefixed. | During many years of his life, Mr. Smeaton was a constant attendant on parliament, his opinion being continually called for. And here his natural strength of judgment and perspicuity of expression had their full display. It was his constant practice, when applied to, to plan or support any measure, to make himself fully acquainted with it, and be convinced of its merits, before he would be concerned in it. By this caution, joined to the clearness of his description, and the integrity of his heart, he seldom failed having the bill he supported carried into an ad of parliameut. No person was heard with more attention, nor had any one ever more confidence placed in his testimony. In the courts of law he had several compliments paid to him from the bench, by the late lord Mansfield and others, on account of the new light he threw upon difficult subjects. 1

1 Life prefixed to his Reports. —Hutton’s Dict.