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Location: Glasgow Guide / Glasgow Information / Famous Glaswegians / Robert Louis Stevenson   

Famous Glaswegians (and those who became famous in Glasgow)<<

Stevenson, Robert Louis[Born:  November 13, 1850, Edinburgh - Died: December 3, 1894, Samoa]

Famous Glaswegians: Robert Louis StevensonRobert Stevenson's father-in-law and step-father were the same person, one Thomas Smith, a tinsmith who invented and manufactured lamp-light reflectors.

In 1787, before Stevenson was part of the family, Smith had become the first engineer for the Northern Lighthouses, a trust set up in 1786 to introduce the lighting of seamarks to the dangerous coasts of Scotland and the Isle of Man. His system was more effective than the open-bonfires that it replaced, and Smith installed the lamps all around the coasts, in buildings specially constructed to house them - lighthouses.

Robert Stevenson's mother, Jane, moved to Edinburgh in 1774, after his father died while working for a Glasgow firm on the Caribbean island of St Kitts. In Edinburgh Robert became aof the children of Thomas and Elizabeth Smith, who lived nearby. In 1786, Robert was first apprenticed to a gun-smith, and then to Smith.

He became an invaluable assistant and was encouraged in his training and formal education by Smith. Jane Stevenson married Thomas Smith in 1792, and seven years later Robert married Smith's daughter, Jean. In 1800 Smith took him into partnership in the business.

During winters, Robert continued his part-time education at the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. In summer he supervised the installation of lights on progressively more remote and exposed sites. His combination of theory and practice, along with his energy, carefulness and natural ability, also enabled him to begin to undertake the design of the lighthouses.

In 1808 he succeeded Smith as the chief executive of the Northern Lighthouses. He has become famous for his contribution to the mammoth task of building a lighthouse on one of the most difficult sites, the Bell Rock - 11 miles out to sea from Arbroath - from early design concepts in 1799 to completion in 1811.

During his career, he designed or constructed at least 25 Scottish lighthouses, and improved Smith's reflectors with the addition of parabolic reflectors and more powerful lamps. He also introduced a system of intermittent and flashing lights to the lighthouses, to enable individual lights to be identified by mariners.

His successful involvement in the Bell Rock lighthouse brought him commissions for other civil engineering works. From 1812 until his retirement in 1846 he established his firm's reputation in Scotland and northern England for designing improvements to harbours, river channels, roads, pioneering railways and other large works, including monuments.

In the construction of the tallest of these monuments, the Melville Column in St Andrew Square, Edinburgh, the special skills he had gained from lighthouse building were brought into use. In 1822, under Robert's direction, the iron crane used on the Bell Rock lighthouse lifted a statue, twice as large-as-life, of the late Viscount Melville, on to the top of a slender 41-metre-high column.

Robert's three sons followed him into civil engineering. The family's most famous member, however, was Robert's grandson, Robert Louis Stevenson, a reluctant trainee engineer, but a great story-teller. Other members of the Stevenson family continued in civil engineering for a further three generations, until Robert's great-grandson, D Alan Stevenson, retired in 1970.

Stevenson died suddenly, at the height of his powers, of a brain (cerebral) haemorrhage in Vailima in Samoa, aged only 44.


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