Alexander Mitchell – The blind engineer with a vision

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Early life

Alexander Mitchell was born on 13 th April 1780 in Dublin, but as a young child his family moved to Pine Hill, near Belfast. However, when his father William, died in 1790, the large family of 13 children were dispersed. Alexander and two his brothers, as the youngest, stayed with their mother Jane (nee Ferguson) in a small rented cottage a mile from Belfast. While here Alexander attended Belfast Academy under the headmastership of Dr Bruce.

Entrepreneur and engineer

Alexander Mitchell portrait
Alexander Mitchell portrait

Alexander’s eyesight had always been poor and it deteriorated rapidly, by the age of 22 he was blind. However, this did not deter him, and he borrowed £100 to start up his own business in the Ballymacarret district, making bricks. This venture was so successful that he was prosperous enough to build and buy property around the city. Despite his disability Alexander was said to have been an outgoing and optimistic character. In 1801 he married Mary Banks (against his mother’s wishes) and together the couple had five children.

Invention of the screw-pile lighthouse

Alexander Mitchell is most renowned for the invention and development of the screw-pile lighthouse. Alexander knew that maritime safety could be greatly enhanced if lighthouses could be erected to warn of hazards in locations where mud banks and shifting sands ruled out traditional construction methods.

His idea centred on the idea of using piles, designed on a corkscrew concept, that could be literally screwed into the soft ground and used to support lighthouses and other structures.

Mitchell’s design was first used on Maplin Sands in the Thames Estuary in 1838, at Fleetwood in Morecombe Bay in 1839 and in Belfast Lough in 1844.

Poster of Andrew Mitchell Lighthouse
Poster of Andrew Mitchell Lighthouse

The success of his invention led to the Mitchell screw-pile being employed throughout the world. In the United States for example, screw-pile lighthouses were constructed in the Chesapeake Bay and some remain in use today. Due to his inventive mind and engineering skill many lives were saved.

Illustration of screwpile lighthouse in Belfast Lough
Screwpile Lighthouse in Belfast Lough

Career achievements

Alexander was very ‘hands on’. Despite his family’s protests he went out in all weathers in a small rowing boat to examine his structures. A remarkable feat for anyone, but even more so for a blind man! Once, after falling into Belfast Lough, his son recalled him being brought back on board “cool and collected, with his hat lost but his stick in his right hand”.

In 1848 Alexander Mitchell was elected to the Institute of Civil Engineers. The following year he was awarded the Telford Silver Medal for his paper entitled ‘On Submarine Foundations, particularly the Screw Pile Mooring’.

Illustration of screwpile installation
Illustration of screwpile installation

Mitchell was also a keen musician, playing the flute and the accordion, as well as inventing several musical instruments. He was particularly fond of old Irish traditional songs and was a friend of Armagh man Edward Bunting who organised the famous Belfast Harp Festival of 1792.

The Belfast Harp Society was created to teach blind children the harp so that they would have a means of earning a living throughout their lives. Mitchell took a place on the musical committee with Edward Bunting, John McCracken, and Robert McAdam.

Mitchell had an active social life and entertained many guests in his home, including Dr James McDonnell, founder of the Linenhall Library.

Alexander Mitchell died on 25 th June 1868 at Glendivis, the home of his daughter Margaret, just outside Belfast. He is buried in Clifton Street Cemetery – shamefully, in an unmarked grave.

Thomas Point Shoal Light Station, USA
Thomas Point Shoal Light Station is a historic screwpile lighthouse (built 1885) in the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland.
(Credit: United States Coast Guard, PA1 Pete Milnes, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

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