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Smeaton, John

engineering civil models wheel

(1724–92) Pioneer of British civil engineering and of the use of models in engineering science.

A youthful enthusiasm for mechanisms led Smeaton to train as an instrument maker and to leave Yorkshire for London, where he opened his own shop and where he could attend meetings of the Royal Society. In the early 1750s he improved the air-pump, and also devised a pyrometer which he used to measure the thermal expansion of materials. Realizing that dock and harbour projects offered more interest and profit than small-scale work he toured such projects in the Netherlands, and in 1756 he was appointed to plan and build a replacement lighthouse at Eddystone. The result was so successful that the design and shape (based on the trunk of the oak tree) have been much used ever since; and Smeaton had a prosperous career in dock, harbour and canal work. He described himself as a civil engineer (as distinct from the familiar military engineer) and he effectively created civil engineering in the UK. He gave it a scientific basis; he had a clear view of the concepts of momentum, energy, power and work, and he used models to elucidate problems with windmills and water-wheels.For the latter, using a two-metre wheel and a moveable reservoir, he showed by 1759 that an overshot wheel was twice as efficient as an under-shot wheel and that power loss (which he estimated) was mainly due to turbulence. He also improved steam engines (again using models) and he devised the roller-chain, which is valuable in heavy engineering, and is most familiar on bicycles.

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