John Smeaton, FRS, (June 8, 1724 – October 28, 1792) was a civil engineer – often regarded as the "father of civil engineering" – responsible for the design of bridges, canals, harbours and lighthouses. He was also a more than capable mechanical engineer and an eminent physicist. He was associated with the Lunar Society. He was the first self-proclaimed civil engineer.
He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1753, and in 1759 won the Copley Medal for his research into the mechanics of waterwheels and windmills. His 1759 paper "An Experimental Enquiry Concerning the Natural Powers of Water and Wind to Turn Mills and Other Machines Depending on Circular Motion"'' addressed the relationship between pressure and velocity for objects moving in air, and his concepts were subsequently developed to devise the 'Smeaton Coefficient'.
However, over the period 1759-1782, he performed a series of further experiments and measurements on waterwheels that led him to support and champion the vis viva theory of German Gottfried Leibniz, an early formulation of conservation of energy. This led him into conflict with members of the academic establishment who rejected Leibniz's theory, believing it inconsistent with Sir Isaac Newton's conservation of momentum. The debate was sadly marred by unfortunate nationalistic sentiments on the establishment's part. He was also responsible for "Smeaton's Harbour" Rye East Sussex. This was designed to keep Rye as a sea going port after the river Rother was silted up
Deciding that he wanted to focus on the lucrative field of civil engineering, he commenced an extensive series of commissions, including:
Because of his expertise in engineering, Smeaton was called to testify in a court for a case related to the silting-up of the harbour at Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk in 1782. He is considered to be the first expert witness to appear in an English court.
Highly regarded by other engineers, he contributed to the Lunar Society and founded the Society of Civil Engineers in 1771. He coined the term civil engineers to distinguish them from military engineers graduating from the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. After his death, the Society was renamed the Smeatonian Society, and was a forerunner of the Institution of Civil Engineers, established in 1818.
John Smeaton lends his name to a high school in the suburbs of Leeds, adjacent to the Pendas Fields estate near Austhorpe. He is also mentioned in the song I Predict a Riot (as a symbol of a more dignified and peaceful epoch in Leeds history; and in reference to a Junior School House at Leeds Grammar School, which lead singer Ricky Wilson attended) by the indie rock band Kaiser Chiefs, who are natives of Leeds.