In addition to being an engineer, John Smeaton was a keen observer of the night sky and had a lifelong interest in astronomy, taking daily readings from his home in Austhorpe.
With his inquiring mind and his skills in mechanics and instrument making, John made his own telescope and through this became proficient at grinding and polishing glass lenses. One of Smeaton’s telescopes is now in the collection of the Science Museum Group.
He wrote five scientific papers about his astronomical observations regarding lunar eclipses and observing methods and these were published by the Royal Society in the Journal of Philosophical Transactions.
While he was better known for the construction of bridges, harbours and lighthouses John did design a number of observatories including ones at Thorley Hall and in Deptford. He also designed portable observatories used during the scientific race around the globe by scientists and astronomers trying to capture observations of the Transit of Venus. These observations would enable them to calculate the distance between planets for the very first time. The transits, which were predicted by Edmund Halley, occurred in 1761 and 1769 and John was tasked with designing a portable observatory to be used by Captain Cook for observations from Tahiti and by William Wales for observations from Hudson Bay, Canada.
John was always interested in learning and the sharing of knowledge and was good friends with Reverend John Michell from Thornhill, Dewsbury who combined work as a clergyman with scientific pursuits in astronomy, mathematics and geology. In 1793 Michell came up with the concept of the existence of Black Holes. He also acted as a critical friend and proof reader to for John when he was writing his book the Narrative of the Building of the Eddystone Lighthouse.
In 2023 as part of Leeds Year of Culture a mobile observatory was created by artists Heather Peak and Ivan Morrison in tribute to John Smeaton.