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John Thomas Smith

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Colonel John Thomas Smith R.E., F.R.S. (1805-1882)

1836 Captain John Thomas Smith of the Madras Engineers, became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.[1]


1883 Obituary [2]

COLONEL JOHN THOMAS SMITH, R.E., F.R.S., who died on the 14th of May, 1882, was one of the oldest Associates of the Institution, having been elected on the 23rd of February, 1836.

He was the second son of Mr. George Smith, of Edwalton, Notts, and afterwards of Foelallt, Cardiganshire, and was born in or about the year 1805.

After receiving his early education at Repton, he proceeded to Addiscombe, where, passing out first in mathematics, he obtained a commission in the Engineers, and in 1825 left for India.

Having been appointed Executive Engineer in the north of the Madras Presidency, he took up the question of limes and cements, and translated Vicat’s standard treatise on the subject. Being a good practical chemist, he was able to enrich that valuable work by many original investigations of his own, added in the form of notes. Soon after this he was called upon to arrange a system of lights for the South Indian coast, and in 1838 the present lighthouse at Madras was erected from his designs, and furnished with a 'reciprocating light,' invented by him to suit the peculiar locality.

Upon Colonel Smith’s return to England in 1837, his labours in the field of practical engineering science were recognised by his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society. He had previously been elected President of the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh.

He soon went back to India, and, at the request of the Government, set to work to reorganise the Madras Mint, introducing steam-machinery and establishing such a system that he abolished the usual allowance for 'waste' of the precious metals-a result of considerable importance to the Government. At this time he devised many ingenious mechanical arrangements, among them an automatic weighing and assorting machine for blanks of coins, based upon the principle of the hydrostatic balance, which has been described, by Sir Arthur Cotton, as “one of the most beautiful specimens of mechanical ingenuity that ever was invented.”

During his stay in Madras Colonel Smith originated, and for some years edited, the Professional Papers of the Madras Engineers, and himself contributed a large number of Papers upon various engineering subjects.

After being several years in charge of the Madras Mint, he was appointed to a similar duty at Calcutta ; but he soon retired from the service, receiving the thanks of the Government of India for his 'scientific skill and exertions.'

Upon returning to England, Colonel Smith was for a time consulting engineer to some Indian irrigation companies; then he became a director, and eventually chairman, of the Madras Railway Company - a position which he held during the remainder of his life. He was also actively at work in other ways. The Government employed him to advise as to mint machinery and other subjects, and to investigate questions connected with the Madras Military Fund.

In conjunction with Professor Graham, F.R.S., he reported upon mintage, and he attended as the British representative at the Monetary Conference held in Paris in 1865 ; besides which, he was an earnest and active member of the Committee of the Church Missionary Society.

For many years Colonel Smith had been occupied in considering the great questions connected with the depreciation of silver in India and the Indian exchanges - bi-metallism, &c. His long study of questions of Political Economy, and his clear and powerful mind, well qualified him to undertake the investigation of intricate problems of this nature. Foreseeing a great loss to the Indian exchequer by the depreciation in the value of silver, and feeling sure that he could devise a scheme to prevent that loss-which, up to the present time, has amounted to several millions sterling he published his views in 1876, and strongly urged them-answering all objectors in subsequent publications. Political economists of the highest order expressed to him their approval of the course of action he proposed. Though the question has been forced aside by more pressing matters, it may be that some day his views may be carried out, effecting a saving of many millions, and conferring an enormous benefit upon the country in whose interest alone he so earnestly laboured.

Colonel Smith was elected an Associate of Council of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and served in the year 1877. He was a member of the (Danish) Society of Northern Antiquaries, and of various other societies. He was besides the author of several scientific works and papers.

During a long and active life Colonel Smith's characteristic was a rigid adherence to a high standard of duty, and thoroughness in carrying out all that he undertook. In private life his clear and vigorous mind, and his deep sympathy with all who were in need or trouble, caused him to be widely sought as a friend and counsellor. He was a truly humble Christian man, respected by all who knew him, and beloved by a large family and circle of brother officers and friends.


Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 53

SMITH, JOHN THOMAS (1805–1882), colonel royal engineers, second son of George Smith of Edwalton, Nottinghamshire, and afterwards of Foëlallt, Cardiganshire, by his wife Eliza Margaret, daughter of Welham Davis, elder brother of the Trinity House, was born at Foëlallt on 16 April 1805.

He was educated at Repton and at the high school, Edinburgh, entered the military college of the East India Company at Addiscombe in 1822, and received a commission as second lieutenant in the Madras engineers on 17 June 1824. He was promoted to be first lieutenant on the following day, and went to Chatham for a course of instruction in professional subjects.

Smith left Chatham on 4 Feb. 1825, and arrived at Madras on 2 Sept. of the same year.

On 28 April 1826 Smith was appointed acting superintending engineer in the public works department for the northern division of the presidency, and on 2 May 1828 he was confirmed in the appointment. He thereupon began a series of investigations in reference to lighthouse-lanterns, devising a reciprocating light. Smith suggested to government the improvement of the lighthouse at Hope's Island, off Coringa, and at the end of 1833 his services were placed at the disposal of the marine board, with a view to the improvement of the lighthouse at Madras.

On 11 Feb. 1834 ill-health compelled Smith to sail for England on leave of absence. Before his departure the governor in council informed him in very complimentary terms that the marine board had adopted his plans for remodelling the lighthouses both at Madras and at Hope's Island. He was promoted to be captain on 5 March 1835.

Smith remained in England until 28 July 1837, and in the same year he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. He was given an extension of furlough to superintend the manufacture of apparatus for the Madras lighthouse. He employed his leisure in the translation of J. L. Vicat's valuable treatise on mortars and cements, to which he added the results of many original experiments, and saw the work through the press before leaving for India. It appeared as ‘A Practical and Scientific Treatise on Calcareous Mortars and Cements, Artificial and Natural, with Additions,’ 8vo, London, 1837.

On his return to Madras on 13 Dec. 1837 he was appointed to the command of the Madras sappers and miners, but remained at Madras on special duty.

On 20 March 1838 he was appointed to the first division of the public works department, comprising the districts of Ganjam, Rajamandry, and Vizagapatam, and on 24 April he took charge of the office of the chief engineer. He served on a committee to inspect and report upon the state of the Red-hill railroad and canal, and he surveyed the Ennore and Pulicat lakes, to ascertain the practicability and cost of keeping open the bar of the Kuam river by artificially closing that of the Ennore river; thereby the whole of the waters collected in the Pulicat lake would be turned into the Kuam, a measure which he considered would afford peculiar facilities for cleansing the Black Town, besides improving the water communication between Madras and Sulurpet. Meanwhile he superintended the erection of the Madras lighthouse, which was begun in 1838 and completed in 1839.

On 5 April 1839 Smith was appointed to the sixth division of the public works department, and on 7 May to officiate as superintending engineer at Madras.

On 24 Sept. 1839 Smith was relieved from all other duties to enable him to inspect and report upon the machinery of the mint at Madras.

On 7 Feb. 1840, the date of the re-establishment of the mint, Smith was appointed mint-master, and by a thorough reformation of the whole establishment soon brought the mint into a high state of efficiency. The satisfactory results obtained by Smith's skilful adaptation to steam power of the old and simple mint machinery driven by animal power were referred to in a financial despatch of 16 March 1841 to the court of directors as highly creditable.

On 13 Jan. 1846 he visited the Cape of Good Hope on leave of absence, returning to the mint on 28 Dec. 1847. An innovation which Smith introduced of adjusting the weights of the blanks by means of the diameters of the pieces, instead of by their thickness, resulted in his design of a very ingenious and beautiful machine, by which twenty or a hundred blanks could be weighed to half a grain and deposited in a separate cell by a single person with two motions of the hand. After the pieces had been thus sorted they were passed through a set of circular cutters, which removed a certain weight according to the excess of each over the standard. By this means almost the whole of the blanks were obtained of the exact weight without further correction. This machine gained an award at the London International Exhibition of 1851.

Smith was promoted to be major on 2 March 1852, and lieutenant-colonel on 1 Aug. 1854. About this time he made some ingenious inventions, which he proposed to apply to the demolition of Cronstadt; and he also invented a refracting sight for rifles.

On 21 Sept. 1855 he was appointed mint-master at Calcutta.

The following year he went to England to arrange about copper machinery for the mint, and did not go back, retiring on a pension, with the honorary rank of colonel, on 23 Oct. 1857. After his return to England he devoted himself to currency problems, and favoured the introduction of a gold standard into India. He was deputed to attend the international monetary congress held in Paris in 1865, besides taking active part in the proceedings of many learned societies.

Smith was for a long time consulting engineer to the Madras Irrigation Company; he was also a director of the Delhi bank and of the Madras Railway Company, of which he was for some years chairman.

On 17 May 1866 he was appointed a member of the consulting committee, military fund department, at the India office, which post he held until the committee was abolished on 1 April 1880. He died at his residence, 10 Gledhow Gardens, London, on 14 May 1882. Sir Arthur Cotton observes of him: ‘He was one of the most talented, laborious, clear-headed, and sound-judging men I have ever met with, or known of by other means.’

He married, on 27 June 1837, Maria Sarah, daughter of R. Tyser, M.D., by whom he had five sons (for the eldest of whom see below) and eight daughters. A portrait is in possession of his daughter-in-law, Mrs. Percy Smith.

Smith, who was a member of many learned bodies, was author of: 1. ‘Observations on the Management of Mints,’ 8vo, Madras, 1848. 2. ‘Observations on the Duties and Responsibilities involved in the Management of Mints,’ 8vo, London, 1848. 3. ‘Report on the Madras Military Fund, containing New Tables of Mortality, Marriage, &c., deduced from the Fifty Years' Experience, 1808–1858,’ by Smith, in conjunction with S. Brown and P. Hardy. 4. ‘Remarks on a Gold Currency for India, and Proposal of Measures for the Introduction of the British Sovereign,’ 8vo, London, 1868. 5. ‘Silver and the Indian Exchanges,’ 8vo, London, 1880.

Smith initiated the ‘Professional Papers of the Madras Engineers,’ and edited vols. i. ii. and iii. of ‘Reports, Correspondence, and Original Papers on various Professional Subjects connected with the Duties of the Corps of Engineers, Madras Presidency’ (4to, Madras, printed between 1845 and 1855; the third edition of the first four volumes was printed at the American Press, Madras, in 1859). Smith contributed to these volumes many papers, mainly on mintage and lighthouse construction.

The eldest son, Percy Guillemard Llewellin Smith (1838–1893), was born at Madras on 15 June 1838, became a lieutenant in the royal engineers on 28 Feb. 1855, served in South Africa from August 1857 to January 1862, was promoted captain on 31 Dec. 1861, and was employed on the defences of Portland and Weymouth until 1869, and on the construction of Maryhill Barracks, Glasgow, until 1874. On 5 July 1872 he was promoted to be major, and in 1874 was appointed instructor in construction at the School of Military Engineering at Chatham. He was promoted to be lieutenant-colonel on 20 Dec. 1879, in which year he became an assistant director of works under the admiralty at Portsmouth. In October 1882 he succeeded Major-general Charles Pasley [q. v.] as director of works at the admiralty, and during ten years of office carried out many important works, both at home and at Malta, Gibraltar, Bermuda, Halifax, and Newfoundland. He was promoted to be brevet colonel on 20 Dec. 1883. He retired from the military service on 31 Dec. 1887 with the honorary rank of major-general, but retained his admiralty appointment. He died at Bournemouth on 25 April 1893. He was twice married: first to a daughter of Captain Bailey, R.N.; and, secondly, in 1886, to Miss Ethel Parkyns. He was the author of ‘Notes on Building Construction,’ published anonymously, 1875–9, in 3 vols. 8vo. It is the best book on the subject published in this country. A fourth volume, on the ‘Theory of Construction,’ was published in 1891. He contributed to vols. xvi. and xviii. new ser. of the ‘Professional Papers of the Corps of Royal Engineers.


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