Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame

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Hutcheson Bridge, Glasgow                                                    Annan Bridge, Dumfriesshire                                                Robert Stevenson

Robert StevensonRobert Stevenson (1772-1850) civil engineer and founder of a family dynasty of lighthouse engineers.

Engineering achievements

Robert Stevenson was responsible for the design and supervision of over 25 lighthouses, including the Bell Rock Lighthouse in 1811. The building of the lighthouses was a heroic achievement. Not only did the structures have to be designed to cope with the great forces of nature - waves, currents and wind - but the designer also had to devise the method of construction and design the lifting plant etc. necessary to construct a monolith, usually on a rock in the middle of the ocean, sometimes far offshore. Stevenson served for nearly 50 years as engineer to the Northern Lighthouse Board. 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 William I of the Netherlands.

Stevenson was also responsible for the design of Stirling New Bridge, Annan Bridge, and Hutcheson Bridge over the Clyde in Glasgow, and for a number of railway, harbour and river navigation projects.

His Life

Age Event Year
Born 8th June in Glasgow to Alan Stevenson, West India merchant and Jane Lillie 1772
1 Death of Stevenson's father on 26th May at St. Christopher 1774
Educated at a charity school in Edinburgh
14 Apprenticed to a gunsmith 1786
20- Attended John Anderson's classes at University of Glasgow part time 1792-94
20 His mother Jane Lillie married Thomas Smith, tinsmith, on 14th November 1792
24- Apprenticed formally to Thomas Smith, tinsmith and lighthouse engineer 1796-1802
22 Married Jane Smith, daughter of Thomas Smith 1799
28- Attended classes at University of Edinburgh with Professors Robison, Playfair, Hope and Jameson 1800-04
28 First designs for the Bell Rock Lighthouse 1800
31- Collaboration with John Rennie for final design of Bell Rock lighthouse 1803-
32 Failed to graduate from University of Edinburgh for "total want of Greek" 1804
34 Act of Parliament passed for construction of Bell Rock lighthouse 1806
36- Served as Engineer to the Northern Lighthouse Board 1808-43
38 Bell Rock lighthouse commissioned and operational, 1 February 1811
42 Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 19th January 1815
48 Trinity Sea Wall, nr Edinburgh, with cycloidal curved profile 1821
55 Completion of Annan Bridge, Dumfriesshire 1827
55 Admitted to the Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers 1827
56 Elected to membership of the Institution of Civil Engineers 1828
57 Awarded Gold Medal from King William I of the Netherlands for inventing intermittent and flashing lights 1829
60 Completion of Stirling Bridge 1832
62 Completion of Hutcheson Bridge, Glasgow 1834
62 Navigation improvements to the River Tay 1834-
74 Retired from the family firm 1846
78 Died 12th July in 1 Baxter's Place, Edinburgh 1850
78 Buried in New Calton Cemetery, Edinburgh 1850

His Legacy

Stevenson can be considered to have inaugurated the modern lighthouse service. Many of his designs are still standing and functioning today, and his leadership and energy inspired a family dynasty of lighthouse engineers over four generations. Robert Stevenson was father to David, Alan and Thomas Stevenson who all became engineers. Robert Louis Stevenson, the famous author, was his grandson.

Stevenson Dynasty
The Stevenson dynasty. Engineers outlined in red.

More Information

Life of Robert Stevenson, Civil Engineer David Stevenson, Edinburgh, 1878
Bright Lights, the Stevenson Engineers 1752-1971 Leslie and Paxton, Edinburgh, 1999
The Lighthouse Stevensons Bella Bathurst, HarperCollins, 1999
Robert Stevenson by Roland Paxton in Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers Vol 1; 1500-1830. Skempton et al (eds), 2002. pp.661-666
Historic Environment Scotland has fixed a commemorative plaque to 1 Baxter Place, Edinburgh
There are 5 artworks of Robert Stevenson in the National Galleries of Scotland
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry (full text available to subscribers and UK library members)

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