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David Stevenson

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David Stevenson (1815-1886)

1887 Obituary [1]

DAVID STEVENSON, the third son of the late Robert Stevenson, M. Inst. C.E., the well-known lighthouse engineer, was born at Edinburgh on the 11th of January, 1815.

Educated at the High School and University of Edinburgh, he elected from the first to follow his father’s profession. Before entering on his apprenticeship he was for some time in the workshops of one of the best practical millwrights of the day, where he acquired manipulative skill, and the proper methods of working in different materials, a course he always advocated for those who intended to follow civil engineering.

In his Presidential Address of 1869 to the Royal Scottish Society of Arts, on 'Altered Relations of British and Foreign Industries and Manufactures,' he fully stated his views, urging the propriety of artisans improving their manipulative skill, and the knowledge and management of the materials with which they had to deal.

After serving a regular pupilage as a civil engineer, he was for some time engaged with Mr. Mackenzie, contractor on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, and he gave a description of this important railway to the Royal Scottish Society of Arts in 1835, and was awarded their Medal for his exposition. He then returned to Edinburgh, and, in conjunction with his father and his brother Alan, began practice as an engineer.

During the year 1837 he made a tour in Canada and the United States, the result of the inspection of the engineering works of these countries being published in a volume under the title of 'Sketch of the Civil Engineering of North America,' which was subsequently republished as one of Weale’s Series of Engineering Works, as peculiarly applicable to newly-developed countries, where engineering works in which timber forms a chief element would yet be in full operation. The views expressed, and the drawings given in this book, with reference to the fine lines and speed attained by American river-steamers were received in this country by shipbuilders with distrust ; but the bluff bows of British sea-going steamers soon gave way to finer lines, shipowners finding that great speed could only be attained by following the example of the American shipbuilders.

Mr. Stevenson’s firm hold the post of Engineers to the Fishery Board of Scotland for Harbours ; and his advice was much sought in regard to the improvement of rivers and harbour- and dock-works. There are indeed, very few rivers or harbours in Scotland with which he was not in some way professionally connected. He was called on to report and execute works for the improvement of the rivers Dee, Lune, Ribble, and Wear in England, the Erne and Foyle in Ireland, and the Forth, Tay, and Kith in Scotland ; and extensive works are now in progress on the lower estuary of the Clyde from the designs of his firm. He was the first to enunciate the true theory of the origin of bars at the mouths of rivers, and also to define the different compartments of rivers and estuaries, and the proper treatment which each should receive for their improvement.

His book on 'Canal and River Engineering,' giving the results of his experience in the treatment of rivers, will long remain the standard work on the difficult subject of which it treats. Originally written about thirty years ago at the request of his old friend, Mr. Adam Black, for the 'Encyclopaedia Britannica,' it was shortly afterwards published as a separate treatise, and it is now in its third edition.

In 1877 at the request of the authorities of the School of Military Engineering, Chatham, he delivered a course of lectures on Canal and River Engineering to their students.

In 1853, Mr. Stevenson succeeded his brother Alan as engineer to the Northern Lighthouse Board, and, along with his brother Thomas, who was at a subsequent date conjoined with him, he designed and executed no fewer than thirty lighthouses, two of which - on Dhuheartach and the Chicken Rocks - are triumphs of engineering skill.

In addition to the Scottish lighthouses, the advice of his firm was taken by the Governments of India, New Zealand, Japan, and Newfoundland on lighthouse-matters, and under their direction schemes for the lighting of the whole coasts of Japan and of New Zealand were matured, and are now being carried out. In connection with the lighting of the coasts of Japan, where earthquakes are frequent, Mr. Stevenson devised the a seismatic arrangement to mitigate the effects of earthquake shocks on the somewhat delicate optical apparatus used in lighthouses, and received the Macdougall Brisbane medal from the Royal Scottish Society of Arts for his invention.

Mr. Stevenson frequently appeared before Parliamentary Committees, and also gave evidence before several Special Committees and Royal Commissions on Harbours of Refuge, River Improvements, and Lighthouses. He was a most conscientious witness, never entering the box without being thoroughly satisfied as to the soundness of the cause he was supporting.

In Edinburgh Mr. Stevenson was greatly respected, and his advice on many important matters connected with the city was eagerly sought and highly valued. His views on the city improvement scheme, as conveyed to Lord Provost Chambers and Mr. David Cousin, city architect, along with his letters which appeared in the 'Scotsman' at the time, greatly facilitated the accomplishment of this great sanitary improvement, while amongst other local works his firm designed and carried out the Edinburgh and Leith sewerage scheme, and the widening of the North Bridge.

In addition to many Papers principally on engineering and cognate subjects read before different societies, Mr. Stevenson found time, amid the exacting calls of his profession, to write several books which have taken a permanent place in engineering literature, such as 'The Application of Marine Surveying and Hydrometry to the Practice of Civil Engineering,' 'Reclamation and Protection of Agricultural Land,' 'The Principles and Practice of Canal and River Engineering.' He also wrote several articles for the last and present editions of the ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica,' among which may be noted 'Canal,' ‘Cofferdam,' 'Diving,' and 'Dredging.' He was also the author of 'Our Lighthouses,' being two articles written for his old friend Dr. Norman Macleod, while editor of 'Good Words,' and subsequently published by Messrs. Black; and of the 'Life of Robert Stevenson,' published in 1818.

Mr. Stevenson was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1844, and he subsequently acted as a member of Council and one of its Vice-Presidents. He was elected a Member of the Institution in 1844, and acted as a Member of Council from 1877 till 1883, when he retired on account of bad health; he was also a Member of the Societe des Ingenieurs Civils, Paris, and of other learned Societies.

He was consulting engineer to the Highland and Agricultural Society, and engineer to the Convention of Royal Burghs of Scotland. In the affairs of the former he took a lively interest, especially as regards improvements in agricultural implements, and contributed several papers and reports to their Transactions, notably one on the reclamation of land, and another on the relative merits of the different systems of steam ploughing. He took a warm interest in the better endowment of the Chairs in the University of Edinburgh, and was mainly instrumental in founding the Glover Divinity Fellowship. He was a great lover of art in all its branches, and had formed a somewhat valuable collection of etchings and engravings begun when a boy at the High School.

He was a man of sound judgement, utterly devoid of ostentation, kind, open, and easily accessible. Since 1883, owing to failing health he was practically laid aside from work, but had gone as was his wont to North Berwick for summer quarters, where he was seized with an apoplectic shock, and died on the 17th of July, 1886, in his seventy-second year.

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. 1887 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries