The last few weeks of ICE News has reported on two anniversaries. It was my privilege to be present at the wreath laying ceremony on Robert Stephenson’s grave in Westminster Abbey, and to light the first candle in Smeaton’s Tower on Plymouth Hoe.
Plymouth in particular prompted me to reconsider the career of these great engineers.
In terms of the history of the profession in Britain the 250th anniversary of the first lighting of Smeaton’s Eddystone Lighthouse has the greatest significance, but the career of Robert Stephenson, who died 150 years ago, undoubtedly had greater global impact.
The key facts about the career of John Smeaton are well known. He successfully designed and built the first all-stone lighthouse on Eddystone reef (1756-1759) and is justifiably regarded as the founder of the civil engineering profession in Britain.
From a middle-class family, he became interested in mechanical and scientific pursuits as a child.
Training himself as a scientific instrument-maker, in his 20s he became known to members of the Royal Society for his ability to tackle difficult challenges and see them through. In 1754, he undertook a study tour of the low countries to learn European best practice in engineering.
This was the context in which the owners of the destroyed Eddystone Lighthouse were recommended by the Royal Society to approach him for a top quality lighthouse design.
The completion of the lighthouse made Smeaton’s reputation, and within a year he was describing himself as a civil engineer and the profession was born.
His legacy was one acknowledged by Robert Stephenson who described Smeaton as “the greatest philosopher in our profession that this country has yet produced”.
Stephenson, of course, had a global influence. His improvements to the steam locomotive ensured that steam traction was a reliable method of transport and launched the railway age. His project documentation for the London-Birmingham Railway was the model for railway engineers everywhere, including his rival, Brunel.
Head and shoulders above
He stood head and shoulders above his peers. His ability to delegate meant he was responsible for more than twice the railway mileage of Brunel. He was involved in railways in the UK, Europe, Africa and India. It is unsurprising that he was buried in Westminster Abbey, the only civil engineer aside from Thomas Telford to be so honoured.
The painting by John Lucas of the Conference of Engineers at Britannia Bridge, with Stephenson at the centre of a group of his peers, is hugely evocation of the spirit of Smeaton, and the Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers, explicitly established to enable engineering rivals to interact socially outside the context of the parliamentary committee chamber where they generally met.