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John Smeaton, on working solo

Friday 20 June 2014

I am committed to Continuing Professional Development. I try to keep up with the current technical literature. Just now, re­minded by John Smeaton’s birthday, I have been re-reading his ac­count of the design and building of the third Eddystone Light­house. It’s a big book, full of fascinating detail. He wrote it at the end of his long career, as he looked back on his most celebrated project.

He explains why he chose to work on his own during the early stages of his work. He was stuck in London between meet­ings with various important people, as he grappled with the problem of securing the lighthouse tower to the wave-swept rock:

It seeming therefore to be a first principle, to cut the rock as little as we could help ; and for this end, to humour its irregularities as far as we could, so as to get a firm fixing for our work ; on this account it appeared necessary, as the first step to be taken (from the dimensions already ob­tained, and by the methods already specified) to construct a complete Model of the rock, in the condition I found it : which being done, a second model might then be formed, shewing to what the rock was to be reduced, with the manner of applying the work of the building thereto ; and so as to describe the external general form, which would be the whole of what was then wanted, for present de­ter­mi­na­tion ; and for adjusting the work of the approaching season. These models I determined should be the work of my own hands ; and this I foresaw, must in its own nature be a work of Time.

THOSE of my readers, who are not in the practice of handling mechanical tools themselves, but are under the necessity of applying to the manual operations of others, will undoubtedly conclude, that I might have saved much time, by employing the hands of others in this matter : and on the idea of the design being already fixed, and fully and accurately, as well as distinctly made out; that is, sup­pos­ing the thing done, that was wanted to be done, it cer­tainly would have been so: and had I wanted a duplicate of any part, or of the whole, when done, I should certainly have had recourse to the hands of others. But such of my readers, as are in the use of handling tools, for the purpose of contrivance and invention, will clearly see, that provided I could work with as much facility and dispatch as those I might happen to meet with and employ, I should have all the time and difficulty, and often the vexation, mistakes and disappointments that arise from a communication of one’s own ideas to others; and that when steps of invention are to follow one another in succession, and dependance on what preceded, under such circumstances, it is not eligible to make use of the hands of others.
      I had also a further reason for undertaking this part of the work myself ; which those who shall peruse this account for the sake of information, may not be displeased to know.​——​I have always found in subjects of mechanical invention and investigation, that I can seldom form an original idea so complete, but that by laying it down in its proper dimensions on paper, I could very much mature and improve it ; and where the subject is attended with in­tri­cacy, it is in a greater degree necessary : but in reducing this to a solid, as is the case in making a model, still further corrections and ad­van­tages will often present themselves, that did not appear upon Paper : and this is in a much more eminent degree when the solid is produced from a drawing by the artist’s own hand, than by the hand of another : and still further improvements will occur, by going again over the detail, in constructing the work itself at large. Therefore to avail myself of all possible ad­van­tages of previous light and information, I determined, from the paper materials that I had brought from Plymouth ; as well as those I carried thither ; at once to construct the models above-mentioned myself…


[John Smeaton, A narrative of the building and a de­scrip­tion of the construction of the Edystone Lighthouse with stone … (London: G Nicol, 1793) Book II, Page 70.]

I’m pleased to discover that one of Smeaton’s models is in the museum in Leeds, his home town.

Plan of the sixth course of the base of Smeaton’s Eddystone lighthouse, showing his design of interlocking dovetailed granite blocks. The hatched part is the rock of the foundation. This engraving is from a nineteenth century book, copied from the original plates in Smeaton’s Narrative.

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