The Smeatonian Society is a unique body which, for its near quarter-millennium existence, has comprised most of Britain's leading professional engineers of the day together with a few non-engineers - or "gentlemen" to use the eighteenth-century terminology, Honorary Members today. Among the latter since 1953 has been HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, who has attended a Society function most years since his election and was the Society's President in its bicentenary year, 1971. Following her election at the 2016 AGM, HRH The Princess Royal is an Honorary Member of the Society too, and is the President for 2021, the Society’s 250th anniversary year.
For most of its existence the Society was the only body to bring together the leading British professional engineers of all disciplines, (the “Civil” in the title having the original “non-military” meaning rather than the narrower current meaning which implies the “built environment”).
Established to combine eighteenth-century networking with conviviality, the Society's meetings over the subsequent centuries have continued to do just that. About a decade ago attendance at meetings was beginning to fall, almost certainly a consequence of the growing maturity of the Royal Academy of Engineering and of the Worshipful Company of Engineers which were established in 1976 and 1983 respectively and which now also provide cross-disciplinary forums. After discussions between the then Presidents of the year and the Society’s long term Honorary Treasurer (and de facto Secretary), it was decided (a) to introduce a more varied format for the Society's meetings, including the introduction of Discussion Dinners, (b) to raise slightly the limit on number of members and (c) to ensure that candidates for election came from as wide a spectrum of contemporary engineering talent as possible and were indeed the leaders of the profession.
As a result the Society was reinvigorated, the numbers attending meetings increased and there has been a significant growth in the exchange of knowledge and ideas between members and the guests invited to attend its meetings - thereby ensuring it continues to achieve its original objectives and, possibly more importantly, informing some of the country's leading engineers and decision makers on technical topics outside their immediate spheres of interest, a process which is greatly to the benefit of society at large. Also, the Society is seen by other engineering bodies as valuably complementary to them, with election to membership indicating the high regard in which an engineer is held by his peers.
The Society is small. This year it has just 69 of the permitted 72 “First Class” engineer members with an additional 8 Emeritus Members and 10 Honorary Members. Its reputation and traditions are such that election to membership has always been highly valued - and even more so following the changes introduced over the past few years. That a body such as the Society, two and a half centuries of tradition and history behind it, can continue to operate as a vigorous and influential organisation in the twenty-first century is to Britain's credit - both at home and abroad.