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The Scottish Nation

STEVENSON, ROBERT, a distinguished civil engineer and the sole designer and executor of the Bell rock lighthouse, was born at Glasgow, 8th June 1772. He was the only son of Allan Stevenson, merchant in that city, who died, whilst his son was yet an infant, at St. Christopher’s in the West Indies, being a partner in an establishment connected with that island. At first he was designed for the ministry, but his mother, whose maiden name was Jane Lillie, having married again, when he was fifteen years of age, he was placed under his stepfather’s care and brought up to his profession. Her second husband was Thomas Smith, a widower with several children, originally a tinsmith in Edinburgh, but who afterwards devoted himself to engineering, and had the merit of introducing into lighthouses oil lamps with parabolic mirrors, instead of the open coal fires placed in elevated choffers, which had previously lighted them. When the Board of commissioners for the northern lighthouses was established in 1786, Mr. Smith was appointed its engineer. At the age of nineteen, Mr. Stevenson was intrusted by him with the erection of a lighthouse on the island of Little Cumbrae, in the firth of Clyde, which he had been commissioned by the Clyde Trustees to construct. This undertaking he executed with so much satisfaction to his stepfather that he was soon after admitted his partner. As his education had been somewhat neglected, he devoted the winter months to attendance, first, at the Andersonian Institution, Glasgow, and afterwards at the university of Edinburgh, his principal studies being mathematics, natural philosophy, chemistry, and natural history, also logic, moral philosophy, and agriculture.

He succeeded his stepfather as engineer to the commissioners, and superintendent of lighthouses, and his first tour of inspection was made in 1797. In 1809 he married Mr. Smith’s eldest daughter. He resigned the office of superintendent of lighthouses in 1843, and during the long period that he had held it he erected no fewer than twenty-three lighthouses within the district of the commission. His principal work was the Bell rock lighthouse, in the German ocean, about twelve miles from Arbroath, on the east coast of Scotland. His plans having received the approbation of Mr. Rennie, the celebrated engineer, operations were commenced in the summer of 1807, and after overcoming almost insurmountable difficulties, the building was completed in October 1810. In the course of the winter the internal fittings went forward, and on the 1st February 1811, the beacon was lighted for the first time. The expense of the whole was about £60,000. The light is revolving, and by means of coloured glass, it shows alternately red and white every two minutes. In foggy weather, two large bells are tolled by the same train of machinery that moves the lights. It is one of the most prominent and serviceable beacons on the Scottish shores, and has been the means of preventing innumerable wrecks. An account of it was published by Mr. Stevenson in 1824, in one volume 4to. For his invention of the flashing lights, he received a gold medal from the king of the Netherlands.

After the eventful year 1815, when it was shown that

“Peace has its victories as well as war,”

Mr. Stevenson was generally consulted as an authority in all matters relating to the construction of harbours, roads, docks, breakwaters, and railways. It was he who first brought into notice the superiority of malleable iron rods for railways over the old cast iron. His labours were principally exhibited on the coasts of Scotland; scarcely a harbour, rock, or island, but bears evidence of his indefatigable industry, and the amount of life and property which, by his exertions, have been saved, is beyond calculation. The beautiful eastern approach to Edinburgh by the Calton hill was planned by him, and executed under his direction. His suggestion of a new form of suspension bridge, applicable to small spans, was partially adopted in the bridge over the Thames at Hammersmith, London. In 1815 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He afterwards became a member of the Geological Society of London, and the Wernerian and Antiquarian Societies of Scotland.

Mr. Stevenson died at his residence in Edinburgh, 12th July 1850. Besides his account of the Bell rock lighthouse, he was the author of several articles in the Encyclopedia Britannica, also in Brewster’s Edinburgh Encyclopedia, and other scientific journals. In 1817, he published a series of letters in the Scots Magazine, containing an account of a tour which he made through the Netherlands and a description of the engineering works connected with the drainage and embankment of Holland. His printed professional reports and contributions are also sufficient to fill four quarto volumes. A marble bust of him, executed by Mr. Samuel Josephs, sculptor, at the command of the commissioners of the board of northern lighthouses, stands in the library of the Bell rock lighthouse, the noblest monument of his genius. A memoir of him by his son, Mr. Allan Stevenson, who succeeded him in office, was contributed, shortly after his death, to the New Philosophical Journal.

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