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The Stevensons family

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Update: 21-01-2024

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Robert Stevenson (1772 - 1850)

Robert Stevenson
Robert Stevenson

Early life

Robert Stevenson was born on June 8, 1772 in Glasgow; his father was Alan Stevenson, a partner in a West India business house in the city. On May 26, 1774 his father died of an epidemic fever on St. Christopher Island. At the same time, Stevenson's uncle died of the same disease. As a result, Alan's widow, Jane Lillie (his mother) came into financial difficulties.

When Robert was fifteen years old, Thomas Smith came into the life of his mother. Thomas Smith was a tinsmith, lamp manufacturer and ingenious mechanic who was appointed as engineer in 1786 for the newly formed Northern Lighthouse Board.


Because of his mother's financial condition, Robert was sent to a charity school in Edinburgh, for his primary education. Subsequently, his mother found that Robert was destined for the ministry and therefore he was sent to the school of a well-known linguist at the time, Mr. Macintyre.

At that time, Robert Stevenson served also as a assistant to Thomas Smith and was so successful that he was entrusted at the age of 19 with the supervision of the creation of a lighthouse on Little Cumbrae Island in the River Clyde. He has decided to follow the profession of civil engineer and to engage in the practice of land survey and architectural drawing and attended lectures in mathematics and natural sciences at the Andersonian Institute in Glasgow.

Combining study and work was complicated. His next projects were the construction of lighthouses on Orkney. During the winter months he uses lectures in philosophy, mathematics, chemistry and natural history, as well as moral philosophy, logic and agriculture at the University of Edinburgh. He has not achieved his degree, possibly due to his poor knowledge of Latin and Greek.

Professional career

In 1797 he was appointed engineer to the Lighthouse Board in succession to Smith; in 1799 he married Smith's eldest daughter Jean, who was also his stepsister, and in 1800 was adopted as Smith's business partner. Prior to 1808, Robert Stevenson supported Thomas Smith at Cloch, Inchkeith, and Start Point lighthouses.

During his term in office as Engineer to the Board from 1808 until 1842, he was responsible for the erection of at least 15 major Lighthouses. Of these was one which transpired to be the most important work of his life and one which undoubtedly is of notable engineering achievement, namely the Bell Rock Lighthouse. A lighthouse with a long preparation time and a long construction time in extremely dangerous environments. The structure of the Bell Rock lighthouse was based on the design of the previously built Eddystone Lighthouse (South England near Devon) by John Smeaton but with various improvements. See also the website of the Bell Rock lighthouse

Stevenson's work on the Bell Rock and elsewhere provided a lot of anecdotes of the danger in which he placed himself. Returning from the Orkney Islands in 1794 on the sloop Elizabeth of Stromness, he had the good fortune to be rowed ashore when the Elizabeth became becalmed off Kinnaird Head; the vessel was later driven back by a gale to Orkney, and there foundered losing all hands. On Bell Rock, which was covered by all but the lowest tide, he tells of an occasion when one of the crew boats drifted away leaving insufficient carrying capacity for the crew in the remaining boats; the situation was saved by the timely arrival of the Bell Rock pilot boat, on an errand to deliver mail to Stevenson.

He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1815 (FRSE 1425 - 19/01/1815). He published an Account of the Bell Rock Lighthouse in 1824; a paper on the North Sea, establishing by evidence that it was eroding the eastern coastline of the United Kingdom, and that the great sandbanks were the spoil taken by the sea. He devised and tested the hypothesis that freshwater and saltwater at river mouths exist as separate and distinct streams. He contributed to the Encyclopædia Britannica and the Edinburgh Encyclopædia, and published in a number of the scientific journals of the day.

Catoptric reflector by Robert Stevenson
Catoptric reflector with red lamp by Robert Stevenson

Stevenson served for nearly fifty years as engineer to the Northern Lighthouse Board, until 1842, during which time he designed and oversaw the construction and later improvement of numerous lighthouses. Many Irish lighthouses and lighthouses in the British colonies were fitted with apparatus prepared under the superintendence of Robert Stevenson. 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 King William I of the Netherlands.

Robert Stevenson's fame was not confined only to Lighthouses, as among other things he was responsible for the design of London and Regent Roads in Edinburgh, the Hutcheson Bridge in Glasgow, railway lines and many other developments. The period after Waterloo and the end of the continental wars was a time of much improvement of the fabric of the country, and engineering skills were much in demand. Besides his work for the Northern Lighthouse Board, he acted as a consulting engineer on many occasions, and worked with Rennie, Alexander Nimmo, Thomas Telford, William Walker, Archibald Elliot and William Cubitt. Projects included roads, bridges, harbours, canals and railways, and river navigations. He designed and oversaw the construction of the Hutcheson Bridge in Glasgow, and the Regent Bridge and approaches from the East to Edinburgh. He projected a number of canals and railways which were not built; and new and improved designs for bridges, some later adopted and implemented by his successors. He invented the movable jib and balance cranes as necessary part of his lighthouse construction; and George Stephenson acknowledged his lead in the selection of malleable rather than cast-iron rails for railways.

On January 19, 1815 Robert Stevenson was elected to became Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, on proposal of: John Barclay, J Playfair, David Brewster (Minute 07/02/1814 NLS Acc10,000/4 and ms Proposal, 08/02/1814 Acc10,000/42).

Family life

Robert Stevenson
Robert Stevenson grave
In 1787, Robert married Jean Smith, Thomas Smith's eldest daughter by his first wife. They together received eight children of whom three died at a young age (not mentioned in the family tree). During that time child mortality was still quite common (1808). This happened during the construction of the Bell Rock lighthouse. Five children became mature. (Mentioned in the family tree). Three of Stevenson’s sons became also engineers: David, Alan, and Thomas. Robert's surviving child was Jane, who assisted in writing and illustrating an account of the Bell Rock Lighthouse construction. Robert Louis Stevenson (novelist - writer of Jykle and Hyde, Treasure Island and other famous books) was his grandson via his son Thomas.

The Stevenson lived on Baxters Place in Edinburgh, at the head of Leith Walk for most of his later years, moving from no.2 to the far larger no.1 around 1820. The building was used as an office from 1985 to 2015 and was named "Robert Stevenson House" in his honour.

Stevenson died at home on 12 July 1850 in Edinburgh. He is buried in the Stevenson family plot in New Calton Cemetery. Robert (and his father - Alan Stevenson) are also memorialized in the churchyard of Glasgow Cathedral on the grave of his grandfather, Robert Stevenson (d.1764), a Glasgow merchant.

Family tree of Robert Stevenson

Family tree Robert Stevenson

Lighthouses of Robert Stevenson
Barra Head1833Outer Hebrides, Berneray
Bell Rock1811East Coast near Abroath
Buchan Ness1827East Coast, Boddam
Calf of Man1818Isle of Man
Cape Wrath1828North Coast near Durness
Cloch Point*1797Southwest Coast, Gourock
Corsewall1817Southwest Coast, Kirkcolm
Douglas Head1832Douglas, Isle of Man
Dunnet Head1831North Coast, Caitthness
Isle of May1816East Coast, Firth of Forth
Girdle Ness1833East Coast, Aberdeen
Mull of Galloway1830Southwest Coast, Wigtownshire
Lismore1833Inner Hebrides, Lismore
Pentland Skerries*1794North Coast, island
Point of Ayre1818Isle of Man
Rinns of Islay1825Inner Hebrides
Southerness1812Southwest Coast
Start Point*1806Orkney Islands, island Sanday
Sumburgh Head1821Shetland Islands
Tarbat Ness1830East Coast, Portmahomack
Toward Point1812Southwest Coast, Clyde Firth
*) assisting Thomas Smith

Robert Stevenson grave
Robert Stevenson grave

Robert Stevenson- WikiTree
Bell Rock Lighthouse- Bell Rock website
Biography Robert Stevenson- Engineering-Timelines
Royal Society of Edinburg- RSE website
Stevenson's Bell Rock Lighthouse- Internet Archive
Life of Robert Stevenson- Internet Archive