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Issue 55 - Robert Stevenson 1772-1850

Scotland Magazine Issue 55
February 2011

 

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Robert Stevenson 1772-1850

The lighthouse builder

Born in Glasgow on 8 June 1772, Robert Stevenson was the only son of Alan Stevenson, a West Indies merchant. Alan died of a fever in the Caribbean while Robert was very young, and for some time Robert’s mother struggled to make ends meet. Robert’s education began at a charitable school and his mother was much involved with the local church. This was where she met the engineer Thomas Smith, who she later married. Smith was a great influence on the young Robert Stevenson, bringing him into his business and giving him responsibility from a young age.

Stevenson studied civil engineering at the Andersonian Institute, Glasgow, and then at the University of Edinburgh.

In 1796 Stevenson became a partner in his stepfather’s firm, and further cemented his position by marrying Jean Smith, his stepfather’s daughter from his first marriage.

Continuing to follow in Smith’s footsteps, Stevenson later took his place on the Scottish Lighthouse Board, in 1797.

Stevenson’s achievements were abundant. He played a part in the design, construction and project management of no less than 20 lighthouses.

Perhaps the most famous of these is Bell Rock (1811). It was a monumental challenge, to build a tower on a rock that is submerged in water for all but an average of two hours at low tide, during spring tides.

In some ways the Bell Rock followed the prototype of the Eddystone lighthouse (1759), which had been pioneered by John Smeaton. But not only was Bell Rock different in that it was so often submerged in water, its cubic content is almost double the size, and the innovative design of its floors and masonry meant that the building held together rather than trying to pull outwards.

Stevenson was also responsible for great improvements to most important aspect of a lighthouse: its lighting. His lighthouses typically incorporated parabolic reflectors, argand burners on a four-sided frame, with an alternate flashing of red and white.

This inspired Sir Walter Scott’s description of the Bell Rock as a “ruddy gem of changeful light”.

Robert Stevenson is most remembered for his work with lighthouses, but in fact he was a civil engineer with a much wider range of interest. He designed many bridges, finding new solutions to engineering problems involving segmental arches and suspension chains. He can also be credited with the idea of using flanged wheels and flexible rails on the railways. He was involved in harbourand canal-building, the draining of the Nor’ Loch, and the construction of the Regent Road around Calton Hill in Ediburgh.

Having spent so much time supervising lighthouse construction on the most exposed and wild outcrops of Scotland, Stevenson took a great interest in the sea and the lives it supported. He promoted the use of barometers by fishermen, scrupulous marine surveys for chart-making, and was passionate about accurate navigation. He was one of the originators of Edinburgh’s Royal Observatory, a fellow of several societies (the Royal, Antiquarian, Wernerian, Geological and Astronomical), and a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

Stevenson and his wife had many children, though not all survived into adulthood. The children who lived continued in the great man’s footsteps, with his sons Alan (1807-65), David (1815-86) and Thomas (1818-87) becoming similarly renowned for their engineering skill.

Eight members of the Stevenson dynasty contributed to the design and construction of 97 lighthouses around the Scottish coast between 1790 and 1940.

The black sheep of the family was of course Stevenson’s grandson, the author Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94). Born in the year of his grandfather’s death, the young Robert had no personal memory of his prestigious grandfather.

Robert Stevenson died in Edinburgh on 12 July 1850 and was buried at New Calton cemetery, alongside his wife who died four years earlier.