1724: The World Debut of the “Father of Civil Engineering”

June 8, 1724

Engineer and physicist John Smeaton, who is widely regarded as the “Father of Civil Engineering,” was born in the English civil parish of Austhorpe. During his prolific career, Smeaton designed numerous lighthouses, bridges, canals, and harbors. 

One of Smeaton’s more notable achievements was a lighthouse that became known as Smeaton’s Tower. This 72-foot (22-meter)-tall structure was the third lighthouse to be built on the Eddystone, a group of treacherous and sea-swept rocks southwest of the hamlet of Rame in southwestern England. Smeaton’s Tower gained prominence for its innovative design.

Smeaton modeled the shape of the lighthouse on an oak tree. In designing the structure, he pioneered the use of hydraulic lime – a type of concrete that sets underwater. Another technique that Smeaton introduced in creating the lighthouse was the securing of concrete blocks together through the use of dovetail joints and marble dowels. Smeaton’s Tower remained in use there on those dangerous rocks as a navigational aid until 1877. 

The foundations and stub of Smeaton’s Tower have stayed in place at that site, which is near the location of the fourth and current lighthouse. The upper part of that older lighthouse, however, was shipped to the vicinity of Plymouth on England’s south coast and placed on a base there as a memorial to Smeaton. 

Other major structures within the United Kingdom that Smeaton helped create include the inland waterway Calder and Hebble Navigation in West Yorkshire; Coldstream Bridge over the River Tweed; and the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal in England’s West Midlands region. In 1771, Smeaton established the Society of Civil Engineers. He originated the term “civil engineers” to distinguish members of that society from military engineers. Renamed the Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers in his honor in 1830, this organization was the world’s first engineering society and it remains the oldest still in existence.

Smeaton died in Austhorpe in 1792 at the age of 68. He is one of six civil engineers featured in a stained glass window that was unveiled in Westminster Abbey in 1862. A memorial stone commemorating Smeaton only was unveiled in that church by Noel Ordman, president of the Smeatonian Society of Engineers, in 1994.

Image Credit: Public Domain

For more information on John Smeaton, please check out John Smeaton – Wikipedia

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