Historic lighthouse designs a beacon of brilliance in city’s new exhibition: image00003-3

30 Oct 2023

Historic lighthouse designs a beacon of brilliance in city’s new exhibition

Museums and galleries Leeds Industrial Museum Leeds 2023

A book of historic lighthouse designs from the brilliant mind of Leeds-born engineering genius John Smeaton has gone on display in Leeds.

The beautiful first edition, penned by Smeaton himself, is among the fascinating objects featured in a new exhibition which has opened at Leeds Industrial Museum.

Its detailed pages include Smeaton’s own first-hand account of the building of his famed Eddystone Lighthouse, and features a series of intricate maps, engravings and plans of a design adopted across the world.

The book itself took 35 years to complete, with this first edition being published in 1791 and dedicated by the author to King George III.

Recently featured on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, the book is on loan from Leeds Central Library and is being displayed at the museum as part of Engineery, which explores the story of civil engineering and the huge impact it has had on the world.

It coincides with the upcoming 300th anniversary of Smeaton, who was born near Whitkirk, Leeds, in 1724.

A self-taught engineer, instrument maker and astronomer, his pioneering approach to problem solving and commitment to improving the world around him saw him dubbed the “father of civil engineering.”

Charged with designing a new lighthouse on Eddystone Rocks off the coast of Devon, Smeaton took his inspiration from the tapered trunk of an oak tree, combined with masonry which mimicked the kerbstones of London’s pavements.

His radical idea also included the invention of a new form of hydraulic cement which would set under water.

Once completed, the lighthouse stood 59 feet high, and was first lit on October 16,  1759, guiding ships safely through the notoriously perilous approach to what was one of the most important naval harbours in England.

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.”

Other exhibits on display as part of Engineery include a lathe Smeaton crafted as a young engineer in Leeds and a medal he was awarded 1787 by the Royal Society of Arts.

They will be on show alongside more modern examples of engineering including the cylinder head from a Land Rover and a breathing aid designed and manufactured during the COVID-19 pandemic and used in more than 130 NHS hospitals.

As well as featuring in the exhibition, the Eddystone Lighthouse book has inspired Smeaton300, a city-wide project which celebrates Smeaton’s life and legacy in partnership with Leeds 2023.

An accompanying exhibition by the Young Smeatonians and will also run alongside a programme 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 thanks to a joint project with Leeds Libraries, The British Library and funded by Leeds2023. Visitors can now borrow a copy for free from Leeds Libraries using their library card.

For more information on Smeaton 300, visit: smeaton300.co.uk

For more information on Leeds2023 go to leeds2023.co.uk

Engineery will be at Leeds Industrial Museum from October 27. For more details visit: Engineery - Leeds Museums & Galleries


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Leeds City Council Communications team