A compilation of historical lighthouse designs conceived by the ingenious engineer John Smeaton, a native of Leeds, is now on public display in the city.
This exquisite inaugural edition, authored by Smeaton himself, stands as one of the captivating artefacts showcased in a recently inaugurated exhibition at Leeds Industrial Museum. Its intricate pages encompass Smeaton’s personal narrative of the construction of his renowned Eddystone Lighthouse. The book also features an array of detailed maps, engravings, and blueprints of a design that found adoption worldwide.
The compilation, a labour of 35 years, saw its initial publication in 1791 and was dedicated to King George III by the author. Recently highlighted on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, the book is on temporary loan from Leeds Central Library and is currently exhibited at the museum as part of “Engineery,” an exhibition delving into the narrative of civil engineering and its monumental impact on the world.
This exhibition coincides with the approaching 300th anniversary of Smeaton, who was born near Whitkirk, Leeds, in 1724. Being a self-taught engineer, instrument maker, and astronomer, his pioneering approach to problem-solving and unwavering commitment to enhancing the world around him earned him the moniker of the “father of civil engineering.”
Tasked with designing a new lighthouse on the Eddystone Rocks off the Devon coast, Smeaton drew inspiration from the tapered trunk of an oak tree, combined with masonry that emulated the kerbstones of London’s streets. His groundbreaking concept also encompassed the creation of a novel form of hydraulic cement capable of setting underwater.
Upon completion, the lighthouse stood at a height of 59 feet and was first illuminated on October 16, 1759, guiding ships safely through the treacherous approach to one of England’s most crucial naval harbours.
John McGoldrick, Leeds Museums and Galleries’ curator of industrial history, said: “John Smeaton was a true genius, who for much of his life focused his brilliant mind and prodigious intellect on the task of improving the world around him.
“He pioneered the field of civil engineering, inspiring many others to design and build projects which shaped the world around us in countless ways.
“Smeaton’s story and legacy, like his designs, have stood the test of time and we’re proud to be celebrating his many achievements and those who followed in his footsteps.”
Additional exhibits within the “Engineery” exhibition encompass a lathe crafted by Smeaton during his early years as an engineer in Leeds, as well as a medal bestowed upon him by the Royal Society of Arts in 1787.
These will be displayed alongside more contemporary engineering examples, such as the cylinder head from a Land Rover and a breathing aid created and manufactured during the COVID-19 pandemic, utilised in over 130 NHS hospitals.
In addition to its inclusion in the exhibition, the Eddystone Lighthouse book has inspired “Smeaton300,” a city-wide initiative celebrating Smeaton’s life and legacy in collaboration with Leeds 2023. An accompanying exhibition by the Young Smeatonians will also run alongside a series of events and activities.
Councillor Jonathan Pryor, Leeds City Council’s executive member for economy, culture and education, said: “Leeds is very proud to be the birthplace of John Smeaton, a genuine trailblazer in the field of engineering whose legacy can still be seen in the city today and all around the world.
“His innovations and those he inspired changed the face of Leeds and many other cities and it is testament to his place in history that we are still celebrating him three centuries later.”
The Eddystone Lighthouse book has also been digitised through a collaborative effort involving Leeds Libraries, The British Library, and funding from Leeds2023. Visitors can now borrow a digital copy for free from Leeds Libraries using their library card.
For further information on Smeaton 300, please visit: smeaton300.co.uk
For more details on Leeds2023, please go to leeds2023.co.uk
“Engineery” will be hosted at Leeds Industrial Museum from October 27. For additional information, visit: Engineery – Leeds Museums & Galleries.