John Smeaton (1724-1792) was a British civil engineer who improved waterwheel design by carrying out a number of experimental enquiries using model waterwheels and other devices. His work led him to take a position in the vis viva controversy, a natural philosophical debate about
the nature of motive force started by Leibniz in 1686. The debate centred on whether motive force was measured by quantity of movement (mv) or vis viva (mv^2), and took place between Leibnizians, Cartesians and Newtonians up until the nineteenth century, when a mature form of classical mechanics was developed. Although Smeaton was a central figure in the history of British engineering, his work has attracted relatively little scholarly attention.

This research aims to show that, and analyse how, Smeaton’s experimental results, which favoured vis viva over momentum, were part of the emergence of a new scientific methodology which drew its inspiration from practical mechanics. We focus on Smeaton because he embodied the ‘hybrid expert’, bridging the gap between the worlds of practical and theoretical mechanics, hands-on know-how and abstract knowledge. This research seeks to investigate the influence of industrial imperatives, such as efficiency, on the search for the first principles of theoretical mechanics, of which the vis viva controversy was originally a part. This will be achieved by examining Smeaton's methodology, with particular emphasis on his use of experimental devices.
Effective start/end date1/10/1830/09/20

    Flemish discipline codes

  • Theory and methodology of philosophy not elsewhere classified

    Research areas

  • waterradefficiëntie

ID: 39335809