John Smeaton (1724-1792)

Original Caption: John Smeaton, from an original picture ascribed to Mortimer, in the possession of the Royal Society.

One of the most important and distinguished British civil engineers was born at Austhorp near Leeds where he also died. His activities covered a very wide field, including water mills, bridges, harbours and land-drainage, but he is best known for the third Eddystone lighthouse which he built between 1756-9. This structure illustrates better than any his ingenious and fertile imagin-ation, most apparent in the complex system of dovetailing he employed in fixing the courses of masonry together. Cramps and joggles had been used by classical and medieval builders, but Smeaton, drawing on his great knowledge of carpentry was the first to employ these essentially tension joints to solve masonry problems, and these methods were to be the model for other masonry towers. This tower was re-erected on Plymouth Hoe after the present tower by Douglass was completed in 1882. His only other tower was at Spurn with its ingenious enclosed coal fire recorded in Smeaton’s own drawings. He was a great individualist and he deliberately eschewed the suave and urbane manners of those who honoured him in London. He was described by a contemporary . . . "his style and language had a particular and in some degree a provincial way of expressing himself and con-veying his ideas, both in speaking and in writing; a way which was very exact and expressive, though his diction was far from what might be called classical or elegant."