'A paper which initiated the experimental study of fluid mechanics' (1760)


An experimental enquiry concerning the natural powers of water and wind to turn mills, and other machines, depending on a circular motion.

Published: London, L. Davis and C. Reymers

Date: 1760

4to (220 ×170 mm), pp. 99-174; three folding engraved plates; fine in recent marbled boards.

See also A. F. Burstall, A history of mechanical engineering, pp. 243-244 for an interesting summary of the model experiments; and Paul N. Wilson, ‘The waterwheels of John Smeaton’, Transactions of the Newcomen Society, 30 (1955): 25-48. Bibliotheca Mechanica, 297-298 (for the first edition as a separate work, 1794); ESTC T106299; Skempton 1299.

First edition. Extract from the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 51, 1 (1759), 100-174. ‘John Smeaton (1724-1792), the first of the great English engineers, was entirely self-trained and largely responsible for the marked increase in respect which his profession was eventually to receive. Born at Leeds as the son of an attorney, he read his first paper before the Royal Society at the age of 26 and by the age of 35 had presented a fourth which won the gold medal of the Society. After a study of the methods used in the Low Countries, he designed and built various English harbors, drainage works, and – the project for which he was best known – the Eddystone Lighthouse, on which two previous contractors had failed. He was also an inventor (the hydraulic ram being among the devices attributed to him), an astronomer, and a writer on various fields in mechanics. ‘So far as hydraulics is concerned, his gold-medal paper of 1759, “An experimental Inquiry concerning the Natural Powers of Water and Wind to turn Mills, and other Machines, depending on a Circular Motion,” is of particular interest, for it contains a description of the first avowed model experiments … Smeaton conducted extensive experiments on models of undershot wheels, overshot wheels, and windmills, all of standard form … For his studies of windmills, [he] used an ingenious combination of Rouse’s and Robins’ rotating arms, the member bearing the vanes being driven manually and the vanes themselves being turned by falling weight. A series of nine maxims deduced from these tests were of the same general nature as those for the undershot wheels. Girard’s enthusiastic translation of Smeaton’s work early in the 19th century gave it a place of prominence in French as well as English engineering literature.’ (Rouse and Ince, History of hydraulics, pp. 120-123)


Marbled boards