Cornhill Magazine,  1 (1860), 220–32.

Life Among the Lighthouses

[Robert C Allen]




National Efficiency, Engineering, Engineers, Heroism, Analogy, Mathematics, Gender, Machinery, Industrial Chemistry, Electricity, Discovery, Electromagnetism, Genius, Light, Humanism

Institutions mentioned:

Trinity House , Electric Power Light and Colour Company

    An historical account of the development of the lighthouse system in the United Kingdom. The article avows that private ownership of lighthouses has been injurious to the national interest, and that fortunately they have recently 'got back to what Queen Elizabeth I meant them to be—public trusts in public hands for public uses' (221). It was nevertheless private enterprise that impelled the building and perpetual rebuilding of the Eddystone lighthouse during the eighteenth century, at great personal cost, as the narrative emphasises, to the 'heroic' engineers of the day. The present structure at Eddystone, completed by John Smeaton in 1759, will 'remain the pattern lighthouse of the world for ever'. (222) The eighteenth-century engineering practices of Smeaton, who 'worked from analogy' and 'tells us of his desire to make his lighthouse resemble the trunk of a stately tree', are compared with those of Alan Stevenson, who designed the Skerryvore lighthouse in the 1830s, and worked entirely 'from mathematical calculation' (224). In a discussion of the hardships endured by lighthouse keepers, observes that 'it is an occupation in which the modern claim for feminine participation has been forestalled', but also concedes that the only 'woman light-keeper' currently employed 'does her duty properly' (229). The article reports that oil has become 'the standard material for light in lighthouses', though it remains 'the object of a thousand and one nice adaptations in regard to its preparation and the machinery by which it is consumed' (229). Furthermore, scientific men have increasingly given their attention to finding other sources of illumination. Recent unsuccessful innovations have included the Bude lamp, various Lime lights, and the electric light. Finally, however, Michael Faraday 'discovered' the principle of electromagnetic induction in 1831, and 'upon this hint' an apparatus has been constructed that can produce an artificial light that is powerful enough to penetrate even through some fogs. Declares that Faraday's 'genius' has produced an apparatus that is 'very glorious to the eye [...] a piece of sunlight poured out upon the night' (230). In discussing this new apparatus, notes that although there are 'divisions among scientific men as to the abstract nature and action of light', there is a general consensus as to its 'secondary laws', and the catoptric system of lighting by reflection, as well as the dioptric system, which works by refraction, are agreed upon as the best means of making use of the artificial light (230–31). The article concludes with the assertion that the erection of a lighthouse, even by an enemy during war, is 'a great holy good, to serve and save humanity' (232).

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