Beacon on the Rock: The Dramatic History of Lighthouses from Ancient Greece to the Present Day

By Peter Williams | Go to book overview


Chapter 3 LIGHT SOURCES AND LENS SYSTEMS

The type of light shown from the lighthouse tower changed very little in the first 2000 years
of lighthouse development. It was a wood-fired beacon that depended on the vagaries of weather
and the skill of the keeper for its visibility. The lights were good in clear weather
(a well-tended fire could be seen from four or five miles away), but damp conditions
reduced this visibility considerably.

THE EARLY KEEPERS SOON FOUND THAT by gathering the fire into a basket, called a cresset, they obtained better results. (“Cresset,” comes ultimately from a Latin word meaning fat, which would have been burned in these containers.) The basket held the fire above the floor, allowing air to be drawn into the embers, making them burn brightly. The cresset used on the Isles of Scilly lighthouse at St. Agnes between 1680 and 1809 remains on display on the adjacent island of Tresco. It is one of the few remaining as a record of this type of basket. While not a particularly efficient way to provide a light, the open fire remained in use in some places until the middle of the nineteenth century. The last in regular use in England was at St. Bees lighthouse on the northeast coast. The cresset was not replaced by oil lamps until 1823. The last in use anywhere in the world is thought to have been the one extinguished at the Norwegian lighthouse at Rundoy in 1858.

Most of the open fires were on flat-topped, open towers with just enough space for the cresset and its immediate fuel supply. On the Baltic coasts the swape light was in more favor. The swape, called by the Danes a vippefyr, used a basket on a long pivoted pole to hold the fire. It was charged with fuel and lit at ground level, then elevated to its working position. Swape lights were used by the Danes well after other countries had established oil-lit towers. A minor swape light was still in use until 1905, operated by Danish Railways on the Island of Gotland. A swape light was placed on Spurn Head at the entrance to the River Humber in England. It was in use for about 80 years until John Smeaton (1724–92), a Yorkshire-born civil engineer, built his much-improved lighthouse. Various ideas were experimented with to improve the quality of the fire. Draft tubes, dampers, and chimneys to control the rate ol burning were tried at a number of lighthouses. While the fire was exposed to the elements, most of these flameenhancing innovations were ineffective, so the idea of enclosing the fire in a glazed chambers was tried. John Smeaton's lighthouse on Spurn Head, which he first lit in 1776, incorporated some of these ideas. Though the controlled-draft coal flame burned much brighter, it was not a complete success because the smoke quickly sooted

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