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Ethics and Values: For the Public Good

John Smeaton accomplished many things throughout his life, from winning the Copley Medal, saving London Bridge from falling down and his famous Eddystone Lighthouse design. Yet, despite these great claims to fame, he was an incredibly modest man who shunned celebrity and whose primary motivation was not about promoting himself but was, instead, concerned with improving the world around him for the benefit of the greater good.

‘It was his maxim that the abilities of the individual are a debt to the stock of public happiness’ Mary Dixon (1797) - daughter of John Smeaton

Whilst John’s motivation was to make the world a better place to live in we should also recognise that, as well as making the world safer, more efficient and easier to navigate for some people, his work also contributed to global trade and the growth of the industrial revolution, which led to harsh working conditions and inequalities for many others.

His well documented curiosity about the world around him led John to work closely with people from a range of disciplines.

Collaboration was at the heart of his work and he was always ready to acknowledge and celebrate the skills of others.

When he was sourcing a stonemason to assist in building the Eddystone Lighthouse he was introduced to Mr Box, a Monumental Mason. After seeing Mr Box at work he noted:

I could not help considering Mr. Box as a capital artist in that kind of material; and therefore felt a secret joy in meeting with such a person” Narrative Of the Eddystone Lighthouse

John was always keen to share his skills and create opportunities for others to develop their own knowledge. John would frequently correspond with others, discussing the scientific challenges of the day and he mentored William Jessop who went on to become a prominent figure in Britain’s canal networks. His family too were involved in his work, at the height of his fame John asked his wife to present the model of Eddystone Lighthouse to the hoards of people who would flock to Austhorpe to hear the story of how the lighthouse had been built. Likewise, his daughter Mary and Ann were encouraged to be part of the team who produced his technical drawings.

Hard work and discipline ran through everything that John Smeaton did and he had equally high expectations of those around him. He also believed in fairness and would never ask anyone to do something that he would not do himself.

Whilst building the Eddystone Lighthouse he would often be found upon the dangerous rocks guiding his crew as they lifted heavy pieces of granite stone together. This practice of working alongside his employees gave him insight into the conditions that they were subjected to and spurred him on to set out an employment contract outlining the expectations of both his team and himself. He made sure a system was in place to safely swap out crews working on the rocks and those working on shore.


A page from a printed book outlining the management of workmen
Management of the workmen

If John patented his work he would have become a very rich man indeed. Instead he chose to charge a flat fee based on the number of days that he worked on each of his projects. His engineering designs were freely available for others to see, learn from and ultimately improve upon. After the Eddystone Lighthouse was built it very quickly became the blueprint for all other wave washed lighthouses across the world and was openly copied to great effect by the Stevenson’s who built many lighthouses in Scotland. 

In today’s world we might recognise him as an advocate for open source technology and place him in the same category as altruistic inventors like Tim Berners-Lee who also opted not to patent his idea for the World Wide Web.

“when a new method of operation, or a new idea is set forth it is impossible to say, to how many good purposes it may by ingenious men be applied” John Smeaton

While John himself demonstrated a strong ethical approach to his life and work, it is important to remember the wider context of what his work contributed to. Britain in the 18th and 19th century had become a global colonial power and was on the path to industrialisation.

Civil engineering works such as lighthouses, canals and harbours were usually commissioned and paid for by business as they were seen as vital to increasing trade, trade that disproportionately benefitted Britain through the exploitation and enslavement of people and the subjugation of countries elsewhere. Civil engineering was defined by Smeaton as works for the public good but it is important to consider who the public are that it is good for.

While researching for these resources it has been challenging to find the voices of women, the 18th century and it’s scientific pursuits were dominated by men. John supported and encouraged his wife and daughters to be involved in his work but this was unusual, the references to women in papers and journals of the time are rare, in fact women were not explicitly admitted as Fellows of the Royal Society until 1943.