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Smeaton, John

John Smeaton and his Lee Navigation

Often considered the “father of civil engineering,” John Smeaton first described himself as a “civil engineer” in 1768. His declaration ushered in a new profession and distinguished his work from military engineers who, since ancient times, had undertaken the construction of all public infrastructure.

Smeaton, born on June 8, 1724 in Austhorpe, Leeds, England, studied at the Leeds Grammar School and joined his father’s law firm before leaving to become a mathematical instrument maker. He developed, among other instruments, a pyrometer to study material expansion and a whirling speculum or horizontal top (a maritime navigation aid).

Charged by the Royal Society, Smeaton rose to the challenge of designing the third iteration of the Eddystone Lighthouse, which had been destroyed after its two prior constructions. He pioneered the use of 'hydraulic lime' (a form of mortar which will set under water) and developed a technique involving dovetailed blocks of granite in the building of the lighthouse.

Smeaton proved instrumental in the development of modern cement after identifying the compositional requirements needed to obtain "hydraulicity" in lime; work which led ultimately to the invention of Portland cement.

Through his life, Smeaton improved on Newcomen's steam engine, he designed windmills, watermills, canals and bridges as well as pumps, ports, mines and jetties. He was also a capable mechanical engineer and an eminent physicist.

Highly regarded by other engineers, he contributed to the Lunar Society and founded the Society of Civil Engineers in 1771. After his death, the Society was renamed the Smeatonian Society, and became a forerunner of the Institution of Civil Engineers, established in 1818.

To learn more about past civil engineers, visit ASCE's People & Projects section.

Wikipedia, John Smeaton