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Robert Stevenson

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1810. Bell Rock Lighthouse.

Robert Stevenson (1772-1850) was a Scottish civil engineer and famed designer and builder of lighthouses.

1772 June 8th. Robert Stevenson was born in Glasgow; his father was Alan Stevenson, a partner in a West India trading house in the city. He died of an epidemic fever on the island of St. Christopher when Stevenson was an infant; at much the same time, Stevenson's uncle died of the same disease, leaving his widow, Jane Lillie, in straightened financial circumstances. As a result, Stevenson was educated as an infant at a charity school.

His mother intended Robert for the ministry and to this end sent him to the school of a famous linguist of the day, Mr. MacIntyre.

1787 In Stevenson's fifteenth year, Jane Lillie married Thomas Smith a tinsmith, lamp-maker and ingenious mechanic who had in 1786 been appointed engineer to the newly formed Northern Lighthouse Board.

Stevenson served as Smith's assistant, and was sufficiently successful that at age 19 he was entrusted with the supervision of the erection of a lighthouse on the island of Little Cumbrae in the river Clyde. He devoted himself with determination to follow the profession of a civil engineer, and applied himself to the practice of surveying and architectural drawing and attended lectures in mathematics and physical sciences at the Andersonian Institute at Glasgow. Study was interleaved with work - his next project was lighthouses on Orkney. He made use of winter months to attend lectures in philosophy, mathematics, chemistry and natural history, as well as moral philosophy, logic and agriculture at the University of Edinburgh. He did not take a degree, however, having a poor (for the time) knowledge of Latin, and none of Greek.

In 1797 he was appointed engineer to the Lighthouse Board in succession to Smith

In 1799 he married Smith's eldest daughter Jean, who was also his stepsister

In 1800 was adopted as Smith's business partner.

The most important work of Stevenson's life is the Bell Rock Lighthouse, a scheme long in the gestation and then long and extremely hazardous in the construction. The involvement of John Rennie (the elder) as a consulting engineer in the project led to some contention for the credit upon the successful completion of the project; particularly between Alan Stevenson, Robert's son, and John Rennie, son of the consulting engineer. Samuel Smiles, the popular engineering author of the time, published an account taken from Rennie, which assisted in establishing his claim. History, and the Northern Lighthouse Board, give full credit to Stevenson.

Stevenson's work on the Bell Rock and elsewhere provided a fund of anecdotes of the danger in which he placed himself. Returning from the Orkneys in 1794 on the sloop Elizabeth of Stromness, he had the good fortune to be rowed ashore when the Elizabeth became becalmed off Kinnaird Head; the ship was later driven back by a gale to Orkney, and there foundered losing all hands. On Bell Rock, which was covered by all but the lowest tide, he tells of an occasion when one of the crew boats drifted away leaving insufficient carrying capacity for the crew in the remaining boats; the situation was saved by the timely arrival of the Bell Rock pilot boat, on an errand to deliver mail to Stevenson.

Stevenson served for nearly fifty years as engineer to the lighthouse board, until 1843, during which time he designed and oversaw the construction and later improvement of numerous lighthouses. He innovated in the choice of light sources, mountings, reflector design, the use of Fresnel lenses, and in rotation and shuttering systems providing lighthouses with individual signatures allowing them to be identified by seafarers. For this last innovation he was awarded a gold medal by the William I of the Netherlands.

The period after Waterloo and the end of the continental wars was a time of much improvement of the fabric of the country, and engineering skills were much in demand. Besides his work for the Northern Lighthouse Board, he acted as a consulting engineer on many occasions, and worked with John Rennie, Alexander Nimmo, Thomas Telford, William Walker (might this mean Ralph Walker or James Walker?) and William Cubitt. Projects included roads, bridges, harbours, canals and railways, and river navigation.

He designed and oversaw the construction of the Hutcheson Bridge in Glasgow, and the Regent Bridge and approaches from the East to Edinburgh. He projected a number of canals and railways which were not built; and new and improved designs for bridges, some of which were later adopted and implemented by his successors. He invented the movable jib and balance cranes as necessary part of his lighthouse construction; and George Stephenson acknowledged his lead in the selection of malleable rather than cast-iron rails for railways.

1815 He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1815.

1824 He published an Account of the Bell Rock Lighthouse in 1824; a paper on the North Sea, establishing by evidence that it was eroding the eastern coastline of the United Kingdom, and that the great sandbanks were the spoil taken by the sea. He devised and tested the hypothesis that freshwater and salt water at river mouths exist as separate and distinct streams. He contributed to the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Edinburgh Encyclopedia, and published in a number of the scientific journals of the day.

1828 Robert Stevenson, Edinburgh, Civil Engineer, became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.[1]

Three of Stevenson’s sons became engineers: Alan who became a partner in the firm about 1832, David who became a partner in 1838, and Thomas, who became a partner in 1846 on his father's retirement[2]. Stevenson also had a daughter, who assisted in writing and illustrating an account of the Bell Rock Lighthouse construction. Robert Louis Stevenson was his grandson, via Thomas.

1850 July 12th. Died in Edinburgh.


1851 Obituary [3]

Mr. Robert Stevenson was born at Glasgow on the 8th of June 1772.

His father dying while he was an infant, he was indebted to the care and judgment of an exemplary mother, for the manner in which his early education was conducted.

He became very early connected with Thomas Smith, of Edinburgh, the successful improver of the mode of illuminating lighthouses, in Scotland, by the substitution of oil-lamps with parabolic mirrors, for the open coal fires, formerly employed. That gentleman was ultimately appointed Engineer to the Lighthouse Board, and, in his labours, young Robert Stevenson rendered him such essential aid, that at the age of nineteen, hew as entrusted with the superintendence of the erection of a lighthouse, on the island of Little Cumbrae, in the river Clyde, and soon after, the entire management of the lighthouse department devolved on him, and he eventually succeeded Mr. Smith as Engineer to the Board.

In the year 1797, he made his first inspection as Engineer to the Board of Northern Lighthouses, a position which he held with great credit to himself and advantage to the Board, until 1842, nearly half a century, during which period he erected twenty-three lighthouses, including that on the Bell Rock, and brought to a high state of efficiency and completeness the illumination of lighthouses, on the catoptric principle, by perfecting the apparatus and introducing several new distinctions, which have been nowhere surpassed if anywhere equalled.

Besides the special duties connected with the business of the Northern Lighthouses, Mr. Stevenson was engaged in many considerable engineering works in England, Ireland, and Scotland, chiefly in the construction of harbours, the improvement of rivers, and the erection of bridges, introducing some new principles of construction into the latter class of works. He also reported on many lines of railway, at the early period of their projection; and he is stated to have first suggested the substitution of malleable-iron rails, instead of the cast iron rails and tram-plates then generally in use.

Mr. Stevenson occupied, for a long period, a high position in the professional world, and at his death the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses passed the following resolution. - 'The Board desire to record their regret at the death of this zealous, faithful, and able officer; to whom is due the honour of conceiving and executing the great work of the Bell Rock, Lighthouse, whose services were gratefully acknowledged, on his retirement from active duty, and will be long remembered by the Board; and they desire to express their sympathy with his family, on the loss of one who was most estimable and exemplary, in all the relations of social and domestic life.'

Mr. Stevenson joined the Institution, as a Member, in the year 1828; and at his decease, on the 12th of July, 1850, had the satisfaction of feeling, that the reputation he had acquired, would be worthily supported by the Sons whom he had introduced into the profession.


Extract from ODNB Biography:

From 1811 to 1827 Stevenson was extensively engaged on canal, road, and railway projects. Before 1818 he made proposals for canals on one level between Edinburgh and Glasgow and also in the Vale of Strathmore. In 1828 he worked with Telford and Nimmo on a proposal for a new harbour at Wallasey and a ship canal across the Wirral to the Mersey. None of these schemes was executed but he was more successful with road making and in his advocacy of stone tracks in city roads. By 1818 Stevenson was convinced of the superiority of railways over small canals for inland communication and proposed the Edinburgh Railway to connect with the Midlothian coalfield. In 1819 he advised on the line for the Stockton and Darlington Railway. By 1820 he was the leading authority on horse-traction railways in Scotland and he edited with notes the numerous ‘Essays on rail-roads’ submitted to the Highland Society, which were published in 1824. By 1836 he had worked out various railway schemes to traverse eastern Scotland from the Tweed to Perth and Aberdeen, and from Edinburgh to Glasgow via Bathgate, more or less on the lines of the eventual railway network, but the financial climate was unfavourable and the necessary finance for their implementation was not forthcoming. The only scheme actually constructed was the short Newton colliery Railway to Little France near Edinburgh. Stevenson's design practice was basically the same as he had adopted for canals: to plan his railways as near level as practicable, using stationary steam-engine powered inclined planes to overcome differences in level. In 1818 he advocated the use of 12 feet long malleable iron edge-rails in preference to the much shorter and weaker cast iron rails then prevalent.

Stevenson designed and constructed many bridges throughout Scotland including, over the Clyde at Glasgow, Hutcheson Bridge (1832–68) and a temporary but notably wide fourteen-span timber bridge (1832–46), Stirling Bridge, for which Stevenson also planned its town approach. This approach is not as imposing as his earlier London and Regent Road approaches into Edinburgh skirting Calton Hill, which included the Regent's Bridge with its open parapets to enable users to enjoy the view. He was also responsible for making these roads which involved blasting, rock excavation, and a massive retaining wall.


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. 1828 Institution of Civil Engineers
  2. ODNB Biography of Robert Stevenson
  3. 1851 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries