The following comes from the Internet Archive web version of a copy of The Dictionary of National Biography in the University of Toronto Library. — George P. Landow]

Illuminated initial D

avid Stevenson, civil engineer, born at Edinburgh on 11 Jan. 1815, was third son of Robert Stevenson, and was brother ofAlan Stevenson and of Thomas Stevenson. He was educated at the high school and university of Edinburgh, but spent some time in youth, in the workshops of millwrights, where he acquired much manual skill. While a pupil he conducted extensive land and marine surveys, in the almost entire absence of trustworthy charts and maps, and made tidal and other hydrometric observations for lighthouses, piers, harbours, docks, and for river and estuarial improvements. His results he published in The Application of Marine Surveying and Hydrometry to the Practice of Civil Engineering, the first book of its kind (1842). On completing his apprenticeship he was engaged with Mr. Mackenzie, the contractor on the Liverpool and Manchester railway, and gave a description of the railway in 1835 to the Royal Scottish Society of Arts. A paper on the 'Dublin and Kingston Railway' followed in 1836. In 1837 Stevenson made a professional tour in Canada and the United States, and published on his return next year a Sketch of the Civil Engineering of North America (republished in 1859 with additions, and now forming one of Weale's 'Engineering Series'). On the outward and homeward voyages he made daily observations on the temperature of the sea and air. In 1838 Stevenson entered into partnership with his father and brother Alan. His father then gave little attention to business, and Alan confined himself to the lighthouse department; the entire management of the general business of the firm consequently devolved on David. He soon was a recognised authority in reference to the improvement of rivers and estuaries, harbours, the construction of docks, and other marine works. He was called on to report on, or to execute works for, the improvement -of the rivers Dee, Lune, Ribble, Wear, and Wyre, and the restoration and enlargement of the Fossdyke navigation in England; the Earn and Foyle in Ireland; and the Forth, Tay, Ness, Nith, and Clyde in Scotland. His 'Remarks on the Improvement of Tidal Rivers,' laid before the Royal Society of Edinburgh (published in London separately in 1845; 2nd ed. 1850), describe the works specially necessary for the improvement of the three parts, 'sea proper,' 'tidal,' and river proper, into which he showed that rivers must be divided. Fuller results of his practice in river engineering were given in the article 'Inland Navigation' in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (8th ed.), and further enlarged in Encyclopaedia Britannica (Edinburgh, 1858, 8vo, 3rd ed.) In 1877 Stevenson gave a course of four lectures on 'Canal and River Engineering' to the students of the Chatham School of Military Engineering.

In 1846 Stevenson was appointed by the admiralty and the department of woods and forests under the Preliminary Inquiries Act, to hold courts of inquiry and to report on a large number of railway, harbour, sanitary, and other schemes in Scotland, England, and Ireland. In all cases save one his suggestions were carried out. This exception was the proposal to cross the Clyde with a railway bridge, which he reported could be done without injury to the navigation; the admiralty, however, refused its sanction. The scheme has since been adopted with the consent of the board of trade and parliament.

In 1853 Stevenson succeeded his brother Alan as engineer to the northern lighthouse board, and along with his brother Thomas, who, at his request, was at a subsequent date joined with him in the engineership, he designed and executed no fewer than twenty-eight beacons and thirty lighthouses. Three of the lighthouses — North Unst, Dhu Heartach, and the Chickens—  were works of great difficulty. The optical apparatus for these thirty lighthouses was in almost every case of novel design. His lighthouse practice was not limited to Scotland, but extended to India, Newfoundland, New Zealand, and Japan. In connection with the lighting of the Japanese coast where earthquakes are frequent, he devised the 'aseismatic arrangement' to mitigate the effect of earthquake shocks on the somewhat delicate optical apparatus used in lighthouses. He took a leading part in introducing paraffin as an illuminant for lighthouses, instead of the expensive colza oil. His report of 1870 settled the relative merits of colza and paraffin for lighthouse purposes, and all British and many European and foreign lighthouse authorities now use paraffin, with increased luminous intensity, and at decreased cost.

In 1844 Stevenson was elected a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, acted as a member of council, and as one of its vice-presidents from 1873 to 1877, and frequently contributed to its proceedings. He was elected a member of the Institute of Civil Engineers in 1844, and acted as a member of council from 1877 to 1883. He contributed to the Proceedings of the institution 'a description of a cofferdam adapted to a hard bottom,' being a cofferdam he designed and used in improving the Ribble; and other papers. He was also member of the Société des Ingenieurs Civils, Paris, and of other learned societies. In 1869, when president of the Royal Scottish Society of Arts, he delivered a valuable address on 'Altered Relations of British and Foreign Industries and Manufactures.'

Stevenson took a warm interest in the better endowment of Edinburgh University chairs, and was a lover and critic of art. He died at North Berwick on 17 July 1886.

Stevenson's books have taken a permanent place in engineering literature. Besides those already mentioned, he wrote Our Lighthouses (from Good Words), 1864, Reclamation and Protection of Agricultural Land (1874), and a life of his father (Edinburgh, 1878). He also contributed the articles 'Canal,' 'Cofferdam,' 'Diving,' 'Dredging,' to the Encyclopaedia Britannica (8th edit.)

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The Dictionary of National Biography Vol. 54. Ed. Sydney Lee. London: Smith, Elder, 1898. Internet Archive web version of a copy in the University of Toronto Library. Web. 7 October 2014.

Last modified 7 October 2014