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

By Peter Williams | Go to book overview


Chapter 8 AUTOMATION ARRIVES

For hundreds of years, the light shown by a lighthouse relied on the diligence of the keeper to ensure its
maximum efficiency during the hours of darkness. He also had to ensure that the fog signal was sounded at
the first signs of diminishing visibility. It was only through skilled and regular attention that the light
from the early lamps burned cleanly. The large area of lantern glass had to be cleaned every day so that the
output of the light was at its maximum. The revolving light required its clockwork motor to be manually
wound throughout the night. Rides and regulations governed the work schedule to make sure that all these
tasks were carried out. These rules also instructed the keeper on the activities required by the lighthouse
authority to keep the appearance of the lighthouse station and its occupants to a high standard. It's no
surprise to find that the keeper had little time left on his hands. So you can well imagine that any means of
automating some of this drudgery would be a welcome innovation.

AS FAR AS LIGHTHOUSES ARE CONCERNED, automation is not a new idea. As early as 1896, Reuben Plass, an inventor and engineer, later noted for his development of motor vehicles, suggested to the U.S. government that a chain of automatic floating lighthouses should be placed at intervals of one mile across the North Atlantic, stretching from the Irish Coast to New York. They would, he postulated, be fitted with apparatus that would switch the light on at dusk and off again at dawn, and they would be fuelled for six months at a time. Ladders were to be provided so that shipwrecked persons could use the lighthouses as reftiges. There would be a store of food for such emergencies, along with an unspecified device to attract the attention of rescuers. Central manned stations were to be placed every 100 miles, where crews with rescue boats would be based. These central stations would be provided with telephones for communication by cable with the shore and each other.

Plass, from Brooklyn, New York, was not the only Victorian lighthouse figure to consider the possibilities of automated lights. What helped drive the thinking forward was the gradual replacement of fuel oils by much cleaner gas and electricity. This meant that a keeper no longer needed to spend hours cleaning away soot residue from the lantern, or trimming wicks. As soon as the light was extinguished, curtains to protect the lens system from sunlight could be pulled around the lantern.

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