John Smeaton was born at Austhorpe Lodge, in Whitkirk near Leeds, on 8 June 1724.
The Smeatons were a middle class family, his father William Smeaton was a lawyer and his grandfather, also called John Smeaton, had built the family home in the countryside near to the Temple Newsam estate.
John was home schooled by his mother Mary until he was 10 years old, when he became a pupil at Leeds Grammar School. At school he excelled in maths but his passion for learning was furthered more at home where he had his own workshop. John was fascinated, some might say obsessed, by the craftsmen and industry taking place around where he lived, watching them work and talking to them about their tools and apparatus. John loved to make his own tools and by the age of 15 he had made his own foot powered turning lathe to make small wooden and ivory objects and his own smelter for melting metals. John’s lathe has survived to this day and, along with a small collection of his tools, can be seen in the Leeds Industrial Museum collection.
Aged 17 John met Henry Hindley, a clock and instrument maker from York, and despite the age difference the two men became great friends, with John visiting Henry often to talk the night away about their latest ideas and experiments.
John also loved to learn by creating miniature versions of machinery in his home workshop, and, after watching the early stages of construction of an engine to pump water from the nearby Garforth Coal Mine, he fabricated his own fully working version at home, testing it on the family pond whereby it promptly drained all the water, killing his father’s fish!
At 18, John was sent to London to study to become a lawyer. His own father was a lawyer and was keen that his son followed him into a career that he deemed appropriate to his social class. However, after two years in London, aged 20, John wrote to his father to ask permission to leave his legal studies and follow his passion for mechanics and scientific learning. His father agreed to this change of career and John rapidly became an accomplished scientific instrument maker.
John’s thirst for learning did not slow down and, keen to learn from others, he read voraciously and sought the company of the country’s brightest scientific minds at the The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. Now known simply as the Royal Society, it is a fellowship of many of the world's most eminent scientists and is the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence. Keen to travel to Europe and learn from the engineers and scientists, John studied French at the Royal Society.
It was for his skill as a scientific instrument maker and his scientific questioning, experimenting and intellect that led to John being recommended and accepted, aged only 29, as a fellow of the Royal Society.
Over his lifetime John wrote and presented numerous scientific papers on subjects such as wind and wave power to the Royal Society and these can all be found in the archives of the Society and, thanks to digitisation, are available in numerous places online.
In 1759 Smeaton was awarded the Copley Medal, the most prestigious scientific medal awarded annually by the Royal Society. Other Copley Medal winners include astronomer William Herschel (but notably not his younger sister and fellow astronomer Caroline Herschel who was also involved in the work), Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking and Jocelyn Bell Burnett (who, in 2021, was only the second woman to win the medal since 1731).
It was at this point that Smeaton undertook what was really his second change of career and he decided to move into engineering, or Engineery as he called it. This was to be John’s biggest career move and one that set him on a path to fame, if not fortune.