Educational Projects
Building John Smeaton’s Waterwheel Testing Device
Steven A. Walton, Penn State STS Program
Learning Objectives
  • Students will create a model that demonstrates how stones grind.
  • Students will compare millstone patterns to identify how the grain is turned into flour as it runs from the central hopper to the perimeter.
John Smeaton was perhaps one of the most important engineers of the 18th century. In an era where engineering was just beginning to develop out of an empirical art into a more numerical science, John Smeaton represents one of the first "scientific" engineers. He is also one of the earliest purely civil engineers (as compared to military engineers, who had until the 18th century had a virtual monopoly on all construction projects, whether civil or military).
In 1759, he published "An Experimental Enquiry concerning the Natural Powers of Water and Wind to Turn Mills, and Other Machines, Depending on a Circular Motion" in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society [vol. 51(1759-60), pp. 100-74], the premier scientific journal in England at the time. This is crucial, as it was the first time waterwheels had been treated seriously in the scientific community (as compared to the strictly engineering community, who could build them, but rarely analyzed them).
This version of John Smeaton’s waterwheel testing setup from 1759 is designed to be built from one 4’x8’ sheet of 3/4” plywood, some hardwood strips, and a pump (either of more wood or PVC pipe (or, if you are lazy, a store-bought pump for draining a waterbed would also work).
The competent woodworker should be able to build this tester in two weekends (exclusive of waterproofing) for about $100-150. The tester should last for years if well built.