May 2014 marks the 500th anniversary of the incorporation of Trinity House and May's item of the month describes a pioneering triumph of English lighthouse engineering.

After the timber and stone lighthouse built on the Eddystone rocks by John Rudyerd was destroyed by fire in 1755, the Eddystone proprietors, who held a lease from Trinity House, chose John Smeaton to build a replacement. Warmly recommended by the Royal Society, Smeaton had no direct experience of building lighthouses – nor did anyone else – but was an instrument maker who investigated the power of wind and water and had tested ships’ compasses and logs at sea.

Above all, as his biographer says, ‘he was valued for the power and clarity of his intellect’ (A.W. Skempton (1981), John Smeaton FRS, p.11).

Both these qualities come across very clearly in his narrative. He explains his thoughts at every stage as he tackled this challenge from first principles. He found inspiration in the kerbstones of London streets, which interlocked so that they could not be dislodged, and in oak trees, with their wide bases for stability and waisted trunks to offer least resistance to the elements. Smeaton personally surveyed the entire surface of the rock, then made models of it and his proposed structure. He solved problems about landing on the rock and being able to leave it again safely if the sea state worsened. He understood materials and how they could be made to withstand the heavy seas which break on the Eddystone ‘with the utmost fury’. He was also an excellent manager, organising the workforce efficiently and providing motivation.

Smeaton’s character emerges through his writing style as friendly and modest. He is conversational, passes judgements and tells good anecdotes. For example, he relates that Rudyerd’s lighthouse had only two keepers, who worked four-hour watches to snuff and renew the candles. One of the men died and the other hoisted the flag to summon assistance but the weather was too rough for a boat to reach the lighthouse. The keeper reasoned that if he tumbled the dead body into the sea, he might be charged with murder, so he let the corpse lie. ‘By degrees the body became so offensive, that it was not in his power to quit of it without help; for it was near a month before the attending boat could effect a landing.’ The relief arrived to find the building filled with the stench of the corpse and they threw it into the sea. This incident prompted the proprietors to employ three men at the lighthouse from then on. (Later re-tellings of this story have attached it to the Smalls lighthouse at some time after 1800, and embellished it by having the surviving keeper suspend his companion in a barrel.)

The idea of writing the book came from Trinity House, who asked Smeaton to supply an account of his lighthouse and its two predecessors, ‘so that in the event of the destruction of the present edifice, they could discover the errors and imperfections’. It seems that they were less than totally confident that Smeaton would succeed! In the event it took him 35 years to complete the book and nothing had happened to the lighthouse in the meantime, leading him to believe that nearly everybody would have lost interest. For this reason the print-run of the 1791 edition was very small and must have been unequal to demand, as a second edition was published in 1793.

The volume is a large folio. Smeaton chose Imperial paper size so that his prints would not have to be folded. There are 23 plates, including charts and a series of plans and perspectives of the rock, the lighthouse and details of its construction, such as the complex interlocking patterns of the masonry blocks and the shape and suspension of the chandeliers. A plate of ‘ideas, hints and sketches’ includes his oak tree and kerbstones. They are all elegantly drawn, with touches of human interest. When Smeaton was alive, the term ‘scientist’ had not been coined, and engineers were described as ‘artists’. It is a term that Smeaton richly deserves.

Smeaton had badges struck for his workmen to protect them from the press-gangs Smeaton's book is available in the Caird Library, as item PBB4061: A Narrative of the building and a description of the construction of the Edystone [sic]lighthouse with stone, by John Smeaton, Civil Engineer, F.R.S., 1791

Even better: come and see for yourself: Visit the National Maritime Museum’s temporary exhibition, Guiding lights: 500 years of Trinity House and safety at sea.  Admission free.

Gillian Hutchinson, Curator of Guiding Lights

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