Francis Hopkinson Smith, noted as an engineer, artist, and storyteller, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on October 23, 1838. He was the son of Francis and Susan (Teackle) Smith, and great-grandson of Francis Hopkinson, an artist-poet-musician and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Francis father, who was to appear later as a character in the semi- autobiographical novel, The Fortunes of Oliver Horn, seems to have been a man of unusual gifts: a mathematician, a philosopher, and amateur musician who invented a new musical instrument. Like his father, the younger Francis was endowed with versatility, following during his lifetime three successive careers, all of which brought him fame.
Although he prepared for college, financial difficulties made it necessary for him to go into business immediately. He began as a shipping clerk in a hardware store and became, shortly afterward, assistant superintendent in the iron foundry that belonged to his elder brother.
At the close of the Civil War he moved to New York, working again in the office of a foundry until his indignation over the unfair business dealings of his employer led him to quit his job. With a partner, James Symington, he went into engineering, a career that he followed for the next thirty years.
He was responsible for several difficult feats of construction that won him success, among them, the Block Island breakwater; the sea wall at Tompkinsville, Staten Island; the foundations for the Statue of Liberty; and, most difficult of all, the Race Rock Lighthouse, eight miles out to sea with a seven mile per hour rip tide.
During these years working as an engineer, Smiths hobby was painting, an occupation which he preferred to keep separate from the business of making money. He made many friends among the younger artists, and as a member of the New York Tile Club, illustrated several books, including A Book of the Tile Club, to which he contributed anonymous sketches and stories.
There followed two books of travel sketches, charming drawings to which he began to add his impressions in prose. These proved popular and brought him wide recognition as an artist. With more leisure, he devoted the greater part of his time to painting, spending his summers abroad, exhibiting, and publishing his drawings.
Almost accidentally he entered on his third career when he was more than fifty years old. Known as an excellent raconteur, he decided to put into print some of his famous after-dinner stories, and from these grew his first book of fiction, Colonel Carter of Cartersville, the delightful tale of an old Virginia gentleman. When this book proved successful he abandoned his engineering career completely and spent the rest of his life writing, lecturing, and painting.
Smiths appearance was that of a prosperous banker rather than an artist. He was tall and vigorous, with sweeping white mustaches. A man who won affection and respect, he carried on his various activities with energy until the last days of his life. He died in New York on April 7, 1915, at the age of seventy-seven, leaving his wife, the former Josephine Van Deventer, and two sons.