Samuel Smiles lived from 23 December 1812 to 16 April 1904. He was a political reformer and author. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Samuel Smiles was born in Haddington, the oldest of eleven children. He left school at the age of 14. He later became an apprentice to a doctor and this enabled him to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh. While still a student, Smiles became committed to the cause of parliamentary reform, writing a series of articles for the Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle and the radical Leeds Times.
In 1838, Samuel Smiles was invited to become the editor of the Leeds Times, a post he held until 1845 and which he used to promote parliamentary reform, women's suffrage, and free trade. In May 1840, he became Secretary to the Leeds Parliamentary Reform Association, an organisation that promoted the six objectives of Chartism: universal suffrage for all men over the age of 21; equal-sized electoral districts; voting by secret ballot; an end to the need of MPs to qualify for Parliament, other than by winning an election; pay for MPs; and annual Parliaments.
After leaving the Leeds Times in 1845, Samuel Smiles became Secretary to the Leeds and Thirsk Railway, a move that seemed to mark a growing interest in civil engineering, and in the civil engineers who were doing so much to reshape Britain at the time. In 1854 he moved to the post of Secretary of the South Eastern Railway. In 1866 he became President of the National Provident Institution, but left in 1871 after a serious stroke. He died in 1904.
At some point in the 1850s, Samuel Smiles seems to have started to write prolifically. His first book was The Life of George Stephenson, published in 1857. This was the first of some 20 biographical works he published, which concluded with his autobiography, published in 1905. Many of his subjects were inventors and engineers, and often Scots: people like Thomas Telford, James Nasmyth and John Rennie. Smiles clearly admired his subjects, and has been the subject of some controversy because he so obviously set out to ensure that his readers ended up admiring them, too. In parallel, he published a series of other works, of which the first is the best known. Self-Help; with Illustrations of Character and Conduct can be said to have opened the way for the "New Thought Movement" in Britain and the USA: and by some accounts for the self-help industry which has become so prolific since.