An English engineer of Scottish descent, born at Austhorpe near Leeds, Smeaton has been dubbed the father of civil engineering. The son of a lawyer who had joined his father's business, he gave up law to become a mathematical instrument maker and later established a reputation as a designer of harbours, lighthouses and bridges. Amongst his chief works were the Eddystone Lighthouse (in SW England) and the Forth and Clyde Canal in Scotland. He was responsible for the harbour at Peterhead, harbour improvements at Aberdeen and also built substantial bridges in towns including Banff, Coldstream and Perth.
Smeaton notably set up an experiment to prove definitively whether an under-shot or over-shot water-wheel is more efficient and proved the latter had twice the power of the former.
He died at his home at Austhorpe.