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Bob Schrage
updated: 11-10-2018

Thomas Smith (1752 - 1815)

Bell Rock
Building of the Bell Rock lighthouse

Early life

Thomas Smith was born December 1752 in FerryPort on Craig (a small coastal parish in northeast Fife, near Tayport), son of Thomas Smith and Mary Kay. His father had been drowned at sea when he was a child, and it was naturally his mother's wish that young Thomas should not continue in his father's footsteps by becoming a mariner.

Professional career

Thomas Smith became a Scottish businessman and early lighthouse engineer. Therefore he started an apprenticevessel as a metal worker with Cairns of Dundee. By his 30s, he was running his own business making lamps and designing street lighting for the burgeoning New Town, Edinburgh. His success with innovative reflectors on lights led him to search for new business by contacting the newly formed Northern Lighthouse Trust (now Northern Lighthouse Board).

He was appointed the first engineer to the Trust contracted to build the first four lighthouses at: Kinnaird Head, North Ronaldsay, Mull of Kintyre and Eilean Glas.

Original reflector by Thomas Smith
Original reflector by Thomas Smith
It was not long before he moved south to further his career in an Edinburgh full of opportunity. By the 1780s he had begun taking an interest in reflectors - at that time concerned mainly with street lighting. He had worked on perfecting his own reflecting lamp, and in 1786, when the Northern Lighthouse Board was set up, he found himself not only Edinburgh's principal lighting engineer, but also the first consultant for Scotland's newly set-up Northern Lighthouse Board.

He used the newly invented Argand lamp with its circular wick and glass chimney which gave a much brighter light than traditional wick lamps. But behind this he fixed parabolic reflectors which concentrated the light. He experimented with several designs to make the lights unique and it was one of the last he designed on Start Point and Sanday lighthouse that used a revolving light that was to become universal.

Thomas's career continued to prosper. In 1802 he became Master of the city's ancient Incorporation of Hammermen, founded in 1483. Its membervessel included eight categories of metalworkers - goldsmiths, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, pewters, cutlers, buckle makers, armourers and lorimers. At that time, too, he became a city magistrate.

Grave of Thomas Smith
Grave of Thomas Smith

Family life

Thomas married three times. His third wife (whom he married in 1792) was Jean Stevenson, Robert Stevenson's widowed mother. By the time construction started on the Bell Rock lighthouse, Thomas had been retired from active lighthouse building some years. His apprentice and latterly partner, Robert Stevenson, had already taken over the responsibilities of lighthouse building. Thomas, however, continued to look after the Edinburgh operations, with regards to the lightroom and other fitments, for the Bell Rock works.

He died in Edinburgh on 21 June 1815 and is buried in the northeast section of Old Calton Burial Ground in Edinburgh.

Family tree of Thomas Smith

Family tree Thomas Smith
Lighthouses of Thomas Smith
Cloch Point*1797Southwest Coast, Gourock
Eilean Glas1789Outer Hebrides, Scalpay
Inchkeith*1804East Coast, Firth of Forth
Kinnaird Head1787East Coast, Fraserburgh
Little Cumbrae1793Shoutwest Coast, island
Mull of Kintyre1788Southwest Coast near Southend
North Ronaldsay1789Orkney Islands
Pentland Skerries*1794North Coast, island
Pladda1790Southwest Coast, island Pladda
Portpatrick1790Southwest Coast, Port Patrick
Start Point*1806Orkney Islands, island Sanday
Leith Pier????Leith near Edinburgh
Tay lights????River Tay, Dundee
*) with his son-in-law Robert Stevenson

Thomas Smith- WikiTree