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The Smeaton Lecture is given annually at the Institution of Civil Engineers at One Great George Street, London. The topic is on a matter related to engineering history and heritage, or a reflective retrospective on a distinguished engineering career. Since 2015 it has been delivered by a member of the Smeatonian Society as a result of an agreement between the Society and the ICE. The speaker is nominated by the Chairman of ICE's Panel for Historical Engineering Works, ICE's Director of Engineering Knowledge and the President of the Smeatonian Society. This page provides links to the most recent lectures held in the ICE archives.


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The 2022 lecture was held in person and virtually on 11th July 2022 at 17:30 - 19:00. Introduced by Ed McCann, President of the ICE (21/22) and presented by Honorary Smeatonian member Julia Elton, Engineering Historian and Past President of the Newcomen Society. 

Every modern biographer of Isambard Kingdom Brunel has followed the line taken by his son that Thomas Telford, as adjudicator of the 1829 competition, turned down Brunel’s design in favour of his own. The story goes that he refused to countenance spans longer than that of his own Menai Bridge and therefore turned down Brunel’s design of 1000 feet in favour of his own design.

However, on examining the archives at the Bristol Record Office and Brunel Institute, it becomes clear that this account is entirely untrue, casting an unjustifiable slur on Telford’s reputation to promote the genius of I.K. Brunel.

This year’s lecture looked at the bridges preceding Clifton, putting it in context with contemporary developments. It examined Telford’s role and gave an overview of the many other entrants and their designs and consider the subsequent history of the bridge and its completion in 1864 by William Henry Barlow and Sir John Hawkshaw, comparing their design with Brunel’s unbuilt winning scheme.

The lecture tells the true story of Bristol’s iconic bridge and drew out lessons for civil engineers today as they design challenging projects and adapt to developments in technology and technical capabilities.

Watch the lecture here



The 2021 lecture was held virtually on 20th July 2021 at 18:00 - 19:00. Introduced by Rachel Skinner, President of the ICE (20/21) and presented by Smeatonian John Baxter, non- Executive Director on the Sellafield Ltd and Drax plc Boards 

When the Romans invaded Britain they discovered extensive coal fields. By the 18th century coal was the main source of heat and power and in 1769 James Watt patented a steam engine utilising a separate steam condenser which revolutionised energy production. However it wasn’t until over a century later in 1882 that the world’s first coal-fired power station generating electricity for public use was opened at Holborn Viaduct, London.

From there coal production and electricity generation from coal grew exponentially. By 1920 almost 100% of electricity came from coal. With energy consumption growing at an enormous rate and Britain’s economy stabilised post WW2 a massive programme to build new coal fired power stations was started. Production stayed above 90% until the late 1950’s as nuclear began to supplement coal. In the late 1980’s the ‘dash for gas’ was enabled and renewables began to appear as potentially commercially viable. From there climate change and the focus on CO2 emissions rang the death knell for the use of coal.

The drive and determination of the UK’s power engineers shows as much ingenuity and invention as their Smeatonian forebears and other early engineers. Significant engineering and operational challenges were faced and overcome to provide the nation with continuous and inexpensive electricity from coal. Most people have no idea what is involved in getting electricity to the lightbulb in their house.

John Baxter plotted the journey of coal-fired electricity production in the UK and use the Drax powers station to illustrate the challenges and successes faced by power engineers. He also gave an insight into Biomass power generation, combined with Carbon Capture and Storage and the potential for a “negative emissions” power plant that could be the hub of a zero emissions industrial region.

Watch the lecture here





The 2020 Smeaton Lecture, presented by Hugh Ferguson. Hon. Treasure of the Smeatonian Society, covered the full history of British consulting engineers, from early beginnings through to the establishment of the profession in the 18th century, the Railway Age of the 1800s, their post-World War Two international boom and the recent commercialisation and consolidation of the industry.

Detailing a remarkable story, peppered with great successes and spectacular failures, the lecture also examined how these engineers created much of the global infrastructure used during the 19th century before doing so again, for the developing world, during the post-war years. This was followed by a panel discussion around what lessons have been learned from the past and how they could be used to shape the future of civil engineering.

Watch the lecture here.

The 18th century saw unprecedented advances in our ability to harness power. Much of this was down to James Watt whose invention of the separate condenser and other improvements to the Newcomen engine was the key that unlocked the full potential of the power of steam. Watt then mastered rotative power for factories, accelerating the industrial revolution. Smeaton had also made improvements to the Newcomen engine and he and Watt shared a mutual respect.

The 2019 Smeaton lecture, presented by Professor Gordon Masterton, explored this relationship with the help of some letters, not previously published or archived, and uses engineering hindsight to explore the factors influencing successful innovation – then and now.





Engineering is a much broader discipline than many of us were taught, or have understood. The problem with the engineering profession is that we have not recognised that many of the skills required for success have nothing to do with maths or physics.

Tony Ridley, Past President of ICE, will illustrate the breadth of engineering through his experience as Managing Director and Chairman for some of the world's great metros. He drew upon lessons learned from a career at the highest level of civil engineering, taken from his recently published book "Engineering in Perspective – Lessons for a Successful Career".

His colleague Richard Anderson, Managing Director of the Railway Technology Strategy Centre (RTSC) at Imperial College London, described the history of the RTSC, drawing on examples from benchmarking undertaken for metro systems worldwide to demonstrate the growth and the beneficial impact of metros serving diverse communities.

The 2018 Smeaton Lecture, in the spirit of ICE200, brought out lessons learned from engineering history that are essential for engineers of the 21st century.

The 2017 Smeaton Lecture presented by Professor Lord Robert Mair, described Marc Brunel's pioneering idea of a moveable shield for tunnelling through soft ground, and the heroic construction of the Thames Tunnel, the first civil engineering project on which his son I K Brunel worked.  The lecture also described the latest tunnelling technology applied in the Crossrail project with 21 kilometres of sub-surface twin bore tunnels and 8 new sub-surface stations, focusing on the importance of geology and recent innovations.

Important questions were discussed, such as whether buildings above will be damaged by subsidence, how they can be protected and how existing underground infrastructure might be affected by new tunnel construction.  Recent research advances and innovations were described, including novel techniques for monitoring construction and whole-life performance using fibre optic technology and wireless sensor networks.





The 2016 Smeaton Lecture, Presented by Mike Chrimes, looked at the design and construction of the Liverpool to Manchester railway.

Opened on 15-16 September 1830, the Liverpool to Manchester Railway is the first main-line and intercity railway in the world. As such it was a prototype project, and remains of global interest, most famously for the establishment of steam locomotive traction as a prime mover, paving the way for a transport revolution that transformed the world over the next 50 years. The Railway was a showcase for British engineering establishing a demand for British engineering expertise all over the world.

The lecture described the planning, procurement, design, management and construction of this pioneering engineering work and its initial operation. It considered the project in the context of the state of civil engineering in the 1820s and its significance today.

The line involved many major engineering works: tunnels and deep cuttings through sandstone, long crossings of deep bogs, inclines considered too steep for locomotive working, and majestic bridges and viaducts. The total quantity of excavation for the railway was about 3m. cubic yards.

The station at Liverpool Road, Manchester is the oldest passenger station in the world and sufficient of its 63 bridges and infrastructure survive to justify its inscription as an ASCE International Civil Engineering landmark in 2016.

During 2015 the nation commemorated many important historic milestones including the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. The 2015 Smeaton Lecture, Presented by Gwilym Roberts, looked at each of the six key WW2 campaigns and battles that the allies had to win to achieve eventual victory, where superior technology reinforced the valour of the troops engaged in the battles.

While thousands of engineers and other technologists conceived, designed and produced the novel weapons, machines and structures that enabled victory to be achieved, many more applied their expertise in the fighting services - while others, mostly civilians and often against incredible odds, produced the myriad artefacts needed for victory or operated, maintained, augmented and repaired the national infrastructure so that essential services could continue to operate even in the direst circumstances.

The lecture summarised these achievements as well as highlighting the scale of the projects and the tempo at which they were completed. After brief accounts of the actions that led to the award of honours and gallantry medals to some of those ICE members who also achieved distinction in the profession after the war, the lecture concluded with suggestions as to the lessons that today's engineers - and statesmen - might learn from the achievements of their forebears.

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The New River is a contour aqueduct that first delivered fresh water from springs near Hertford to a large pond on the hill of Islington above the City in 1613, and through wooden pipes from there to individual subscribers in the City in 1614.

The recent quarter centenary of the River, which still delivers around 8% of London's fresh water to the East Reservoir at Stoke Newington, revived interest in this remarkably long-lived element of London's infrastructure.

The speaker was involved, not only with the celebrations of the quarter centenary, but also with a project to create a heritage interpretation, education and community use centre in the surviving historic buildings on the New River's Head in Islington.

Andrew Smith summarises the history of the River from 1607 onwards and, in view of the dedicatee of this annual lecture, briefly describes John Smeaton's role in the River's life towards the end of the 18th Century.

1991 Dr Denis Smith - The life and work of Sir Joseph Bazalgette
1992 Roland Paxton - Smeaton in Scotland
1993 Sir Alan Muir Wood - Thames Tunnel 1825-1843 - where shield tunnelling began
1994 Gil Howarth - William Mackenzie, giant of railways
1995 Peter Ross  The construction of Westminster Cathedral
1996 Professor J Heyman - An observation on the fan vault of Henry VII chapel, Westminster Abbey
1997 Professor Hugh B Sutherland - Rankine the polymath - the life and times of W J M Rankine
1999 Dr Martin Barnes - Smeaton to Egan: The extraordinary history of civil engineering management
2000 Prof Roland Paxton and Prof George Fleming - Regeneration of the Forth & Clyde and Union canals
2001 Bob McWilliam - Spinning in their graves (BSI)
2002 Dr Rowland J Mainstone - The dome of St. Peters: design, construction and responses to concerns for stability.
2003 Andrew C Smith and Captain Benjamin Day - How was the Iron Bridge at Coalbrookdale erected in 1779? 
2004 Dr Michael Bailey-  Beaumont and Trevithick on Track: 400 years of wheel/rail interface
2005 Tom Swailes - Power, Water, and the Manchester Millwrights
2006 Steven Brindle - I K Brunel, the ultimate bridge designer
2007 Dr Bill Addis - Engineering design in the time of Thomas Telford
2008 Professor Andrew Lambert - John Scott Russell
2009 John Wootton - 50 years of British motorways and plans for the future.
2010 Professor Iain Moffat - John Frederick La Trobe Bateman
2011 Peter Cross-Rudkin - Stupendous and useful: the works of John Rennie.
2012 Dr Jim Andrew - Thomas Newcomen, steam power and the Industrial Revolution
2013 Professor Sally Sheard - A design for life - James Newlands

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