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When you’re walking down a sidewalk or driving along the highway, you’re probably not thinking about the great technological advancements it took to make these everyday tasks. The invention of concrete can be dated back all the way to the ancient Romans—their work building roads and aqueducts using stone and concrete were feats of engineering that are still standing today. 

John Smeaton: The Father of Modern Concrete

But there’s one important historical figure most people haven’t even heard of: John Smeaton. He is known as the “father of civil engineering and modern concrete”. His work throughout the 1700s shaped how concrete could be used in construction, and advanced the field of civil engineering to what it is today. 

Concrete in Antiquity 

The recipe for creating concrete was first created and used by the Ancient Romans. By mixing different sized particles of stone (fine sand with coarse pebbles) with a lime paste, they could use the strong mixture for construction work. Since concrete holds heat more efficiently, is stronger, and doesn’t degrade like other materials, it was (and still is) a popular construction material. Concrete even gets stronger over its lifetime as it hardens. But the recipe for concrete was lost to time sometime after the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D. It wasn’t until the second half of the 1700s that concrete would be rediscovered by Smeaton—marking a momentous occasion in the future of construction. 

Concrete in the 1700s — John Smeaton

John Smeaton was an English engineer who made concrete a viable construction material for all types of buildings again. He was born near Leeds, England, on June 8, 1724. While his father wanted him to follow in his footsteps and become a lawyer, Smeaton was more interested in studying mechanical sciences and engineering. 

His work with the Eddystone Lighthouse in Plymouth in 1756 is probably his most recognized accomplishment, which involved the use of concrete in its reconstruction efforts. The lighthouse was in disrepair due to the tough sea conditions, and recent fires caused the wooden base of the lighthouse to be destroyed. Smeaton’s techniques included using a quick-drying concrete he created called hydraulic lime to build a base that could withstand the harsh sea conditions. And he designed the new shape of the lighthouse to be built similarly to an oak tree—having a wide base and tapering up for stability. 

Smeaton was attempting to find a building material that could withstand water for the lighthouse. He discovered that quicklime made cement harder than other methods used in construction at the time. His research showed that the calcinations of limestone that contain clay produced a type of lime that hardens when under water. In addition to its ability to set underwater, his concrete invention had low shrinkage, was salt and front resistant, and could withstand large amounts of weight. He named this type of lyme Hydraulic lime, and it became the primary construction material used in the rebuilding of the lighthouse.

While the majority of the Eddystone Lighthouse was built with granite, his hydraulic lyme concrete kept the lighthouse operational until 1877 when it was dismantled and re-erected on Plymouth Hoe. The Eddystone Lighthouse became the standard for lighthouse design. And his creation of hydraulic lime led to concrete being used throughout England and advanced the construction techniques and technology during his time.

In addition to his work with the Eddystone Lighthouse and his long list of accomplishments, Smeaton was the first person to coin the title of ‘Civil engineer’. Before this new non-military title, the majority of engineering work was undertaken by military personnel. In 1771, he formed the Society of Civil Engineers, a group that is still active today, providing support, research, and training to almost 100,000 civil engineers. 


Concrete Today

Today, concrete is quite literally the building blocks of our civilizations. From the Hoover Dam and sports arenas, to the very ground you walk and drive on, concrete is everywhere. It’s a part of our daily lives that’s often taken for granted. The work of John Smeaton was instrumental in bringing civil engineering and construction to the place it is today—a staple in every household, every road, and every building.