Alexander Mitchell – The blind engineer with a vision

Published by P&P on

Home » People » Forgotten Folk » Alexander Mitchell – The blind engineer with a vision

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)

Do you want to see all new BelfastEntries Posts?
If you like our Facebook posts and would like to see more then please add yourself as a friend to our PandP profile screen or follow our BelfastEntries page. We cannot add posts to all groups and the only way to be sure of receiving notifications of new posts is to follow our page. You will see that the Belfast Entries page has a 5 star rating from readers

If you enjoyed this article please consider a small donation

Belfast Entries is a husband & wife hobby website featuring articles on our shared history, memories and entertaining stories of our past. To help us meet rising website hosting costs please click the coffee cup below to learn how to make a small donation. Please note that every contribution is valued and that we will not contact you directly in order to respect your privacy.

Buy Us a Coffee
Buy Us a Coffee

Donations this month 4 🙂

Thank you Olwen

Thank you Nicola

Thank you Alison

Thank you Paul

We had 7 donations last month


Help Us Find New Readers

If you like our posts please help us to grow our readership by sharing any posts that you like using the social media sharing icons shown with each post.


What are others reading now?

Galboly cottage view

Galboly – The County Antrim Village Lost in Time

By P&P / 30 September 2021 / 4 Comments
Mill chimney - a common sight in Belfast

Ardoyne – The Story of a Village

By P&P / 13 November 2021 / 2 Comments
Bodies Illustration at the scene Belfast Telegraph 13th March 1890

Nora’s Grave 1890 – Love & Death

By P&P / 19 March 2022 / 0 Comments
Belfast Long Bridge crossed the River Lagan between 1688 and 1841

Unusual Laws in Old Belfast 1613 – 1816

By P&P / 11 March 2022 / 0 Comments

Cost of Living Crisis

Given the current cost of living crisis that will impact so many in coming months we have added a page signposting organisations that may be able to offer support. We have no relationship with these organisations and cannot offer financial advice but we hope that some of the links may prove useful.


Ancestry Antrim Arthur Chichester artist Belfast Belfast Entries Belfast Family belfast roots Carrickfergus Castle Cemetery Church Clifton House County Antrim County Down Department Store Donegal education. family tree Famous Folk Forgotten folk Genealogy Ghost graveyard Historical places History Hotel Ireland Irish Census Records Irish Family Irish genealogy irish roots Mary Ann McCracken Operation Overlord Otto Jaffe Outlaw People Philanthropist Places to see Poor House Sailortown St Patrick Titanic Tourism United Irishmen


Belfast Entries posts & photos are our intellectual property and copyrighted to us. Where we use photos that do not belong to us, it is because we believe them to be in the public domain or shared under a Creative Commons licence with appropriate attribution. None of our content or images can be used without our consent. Note that a link to our Copyright & Takedown notice is included in the website footer on all pages.


P&P

We are a Belfast couple adding information on Belfast and the surrounding counties. Over coming months we will add a range of posts covering the people, places, products and stories that interest us and will hopefully be of interest to you. Over time we hope to build up information of use to locals & visitors alike and welcome your feedback on subjects of interest or stories that might be interest to the wider audience. Let us know what you think.

0 Comments

Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Would you like notifications of new Belfast Entries posts? OK No thanks