Sunday, July 9, 2017

Off on a New Adventure!



Greetings readers! I'll be away for the remainder of the month, on a lighthouse tour in Scotland and England. I always keep a journal on my tours, so look for some future grist from my trip in this blog. Check back in August. Thanks, and enjoy the remainder of July. (Photo features me at Ogden Point Lighthouse, British Columbia.)

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Sentinel along the Shore



Who can resist a quiet road that leads to a lighthouse?
It may be just a sandy lane, or a pebble-strewn path;
Yet, we are inexplicably drawn along its narrow, winding course---
Awed by the rumble of the waves beating against its base,
and mesmerized by the light, beaming from the tower face.


Who can remain on the ground below when there's a spiral stair to climb?
Inviting us to journey to the top, as lightkeepers did long ago;
Tempting feet to tread higher, above the frothy, tumbling surf---
where salt winds buffet and scour, and seagulls effortlessly float
over the beach that stretches far, like an endless castle moat.



Who can forget the giddy feeling of standing near to heaven,
with clouds drifting lazily by, like fleecy, laundered lambs;
And the stars a million friendly beacons to steer by in the night---
up where the keeper stood his watch and polished lustrous brass,
where darkness is forgotten in a single, brilliant flash.



Elinor DeWire 1996
Lighthouse Victuals & Verse (out of print)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

"Into the Lantern" opens!



I had a wonderfully bittersweet time last weekend attending the opening of the new exhibit at Maine Maritime Museum--"Into the Lantern." Do make plans to see it. It's amazing--so well-done and so contextual. Most lens exhibits at museums and lighthouses offer only the lens and a few static reader boards. This one offers a chance to step on a replica of the deck of the lantern of the Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse. The second-order Fresnel lens flashes from inside the replicated lantern while a curved video screen offers four seasons of views from the actual lantern gallery of the real Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse. Everyone can enjoy the exhibit--from kids to grandparents, from the able-bodied to the handicapped.

I guess part of the reason I love it is that I helped create it. Last autumn I was contacted by Caroline Losneck and Christoph Gelfand of True Life Media. They were looking for images and information about lighthouses and lighthouse keepers for an exhibit they were designing for Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, Maine. They asked to interview me, and we met at the Custom House Museum in New London, CT, near my home, in early December. It was kind of them to come to me, since they live in Portland, Maine. We filmed for about four hours, and I felt good about all the info I gave them, plus tips for other lighthouse aficionados to contact.





Both images of my interview are from Susan Tamulevich, director of the Custom House Museum.


It's always fun to be interviewed. I wore a new scarf, sent to me by my daughter and her spouse as an early Christmas gift. It seemed to match my new eyeglasses! Behind me in the photo above is the lens from New London Ledge Lighthouse. Over my left should (the bad one that requires a cortisone shot too often!) is a model of Race Rock Lighthouse. In the top photo you can see a large model of New London Ledge Lighthouse and Caroline and Christoph doing the interview. Such nice people!

Imagine my excitement in late May when I received an invitation to the grand opening of the exhibit on June 16 and 17. Check out some images from the soft opening night on June 16th.


My husband snapped this photo of me in front of the exhibit room. Behind me is the lantern and lens.


The amazing lens, rehabilitated by lampist Jim Dunlap, revolving and flashing. Wonderful context!



This is me listening to an audio clip of myself talking about women lightkeepers. True Life Media designed a clever room circa 1960s with an old dial-up telephone. A sign (below) gave numbers to dial for info on different topics.






It doesn't get much yummier--lighthouse cookies as refreshments!



Though I married a USN officer, I secretly LOVE the USCG. This handsome guy was at the exhibit on Saturday, June 17th--First Class Petty Officer Tony Robb of the South Portland Coast Guard Aids to Navigation crew. We chatted, I hugged him and thanked him for his work, and then I tried to talk him into applying for the officer program in the Coast Guard. I hope he will. Such a great guy!



Remember that interview I did last December? Well, that's me on screen in a video for the "Into the Lantern" exhibit. And that's me taking a picture of me! Does anyone else think their voice sounds strange when heard on a recording or video? I was pleased, however, when the museum curator told me my voice is "calming," kind of like "a lullaby"....oh my!

On Saturday, lighthouse groups came and had tables on the lawn on the north side of the museum. I think there were about a dozen, plus Jeremy D'Entremont with his books and Bob Trapani representing the American Lighthouse Foundation and the Coast Guard (he's a volunteer for the CG!). The Maine Lighthouse Museum was there too. I had a great time meeting so many lighthouse people and "talking lighthouse." Blessed be my husband, Jon, who took scads of pictures and endured "Lighthousepalooza." He loves lighthouses, but a long day of photos and gabbing can wear him out, especially when I don't feed him. Can you believe I forgot to eat lunch until mid-afternoon?

Below is a shot of me with Jon (left) and Bob Trapani. A gal couldn't be sandwiched between two nicer men!




It was such a fun two days. I visited a few other lighthouses on my way to and from Maine, including Portland Head, the Newburyport Range Lights, and Plum Island Lighthouse. Some staff were at Plum Island Light cleaning up from a wedding. When I told them my name, they screamed and gave me a tour up the lighthouse stairs to the lantern. They also booked me as a speaker for their September 20th meeting. I'm so glad to be going back in a few months to meet the rest of their group.


Waving from the gallery of Plum Island Lighthouse with Rosalind of the Friends of Plum Island Lighthouse.


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Cape Flattery Lighthouse

           

          Raindrops pelted the windshield of the helicopter on the morning of March 24, 2003 as I made my way to Cape Flattery Lighthouse, a lonely sentry on Tatoosh Island marking the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Our pilot, Ron, based in Olympia, didn’t know much about lighthouses but assured us we would enjoy our visit to this one.  He had been there once to deliver a researcher doing bird studies for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Today, he had three lighthouse nuts on his hands.
          We had taken off from the small airport at Forks, a rainy, dark town known for its loggers, mushroom hunters, hearty diner food, and later, the setting of the "Twilight" series of books and movies. I had recently read a review copy of Our Lady of the Forest, by David Guterson. It was about a girl ho saw a vision of Mother Mary in the woods near Forks and how it changed her life drastically. This was a remote town with little traffic, and of that mostly passersby.
            It was partly sunny on this day, however. Two friends were accompanying me---Bill Younger of Harbour Lights, who aimed to document the lighthouse for a future model of it, and Derith Bennett, a friend from Florida. If anyone was more nutty about lighthouses than me, it was (and still is) Derith. She aimed to touch every lighthouse in the nation if she could. Climbing them was even better. As a last resort, a view of them worked. It worked to say you'd been there. 
           The three of us had split the helicopter cost and gotten permission from the Makah Indians to land on Tatoosh Island. We would touch this lighthouse! U.S. Fish & Wildlife claimed we needed their permission to go, but the Makah scoffed, reminding us that they owned the island and could take visitors to it at their leisure. That meant they were sending along three of their tribal board members...at our expense. We were okay with that and willing to treat them to a helicopter ride as a way of thanking them for smoothing the waters to the island (though we wouldn't be going by boat!). I had books for them, and Bill had a few Harbour Lights figures to give them. Derith had a bag of candy to share. Gifts remain important, even today, when you visit tribal members after they have offered courtesies and kindness.
The collapsed building is the old weather station.

The chopper lifted off its pad at Forks and bounced a bit as it rose. Each of us wore a headset, and the conversation was excited. I wasn't sure if the best part was the helicopter ride in one of those choppers with a big clear viewing bulb on the front, or the chance to visit Cape Flattery Lighthouse without getting wet. I had heard numerous nightmarish stories about people trying to land at the island in canoes, kayaks, zodiacs, motorboats, and more. It wasn't an easy place to access.
Clearing the trees and the town, the chopper turned almost due north. A panorama of Douglas firs and red cedars came into view and grew smaller as we gained altitude. The helicopter jostled lightly in the thermals above Olympic National Forest, then bounced energetically as we flew off the coast.  The staggering beauty of rocks, stacks, arches, and caves left me breathless.  The sea was an unbelieveable blue, almost navy blue. It had to be rich with nutrients for all the fish, seals, whales and other animals living in or near it. Far offshore, large tankers were on the horizon. This was what lighthouses were for, I reminded myself, though not as much today as when this lighthouse was built.
Ron turned back inland toward Lake Ozette, and a huge herd of elk came into view. He has spotted them and was giving us a little extra tourist experience. Each elk looked like it carried its own beige pillow on its butt! The herd began running in all directions, unhappy with the noise we made as we passed over them. These wild, wild creatures surely thought we were some sort of enormous bird passing overhead.
The lake was a blue-green jewel with clouds reflected on its surface. 
"I really wanted you to see this area," Ron said. "This is wilderness country. It looks a lot as it did centuries ago. There's an old Makah village that's been dug up on the north side of the lake. I can just imagine it, maybe 300 or 400 years ago. The people working around their lodges, children playing and dogs barking, and curls of smoke rising from cooking fires. I've heard a massive mudslide came down that hill behind it and destroyed the whole village at some point in the past."
Moments later, he turned us almost due west and took us back over the Pacific. Raindrops suddenly began spattering the clear windshield and bulb of the chopper...then ice pellets, and finally snowflakes. They left rapid, streaking trails on the glass...or was it plexiglass. A March day here can deliver almost any kind of weather.
Below us, the counterpane of shoreline left me awestruck. An apron of aqua-blue was stretched between the headlands at the lake, with a white lacy fringe where it met the brown shore. I could see wave after wave pounding the rocks and stacks, slowly chiseling them into fantastic shapes. We rounded the headland behind the archaeological dig at the old Makah village, and Tatoosh Island came into view, eighteen surreal acres draped in sunbreaks and leaden clouds of a blustery spring day in the Pacific Northwest.
From this vantage point, it was easy to see and feel the isolation of the place. The line of horizon separating it from the mainland seemed miles long, but I knew it was barely a mile. And a treacherous mile for sure, a stretch of unforgiving deep blue water where rocks reposed. It had claimed ships and lives for centuries. Even the lighthouse keepers' dreaded it. One of them named Rasmussen drowned returning from shore in the 1934. A keeper's son also drowned, this time trying to help with a rescue of two navy personnel.
Only Old Doctor, a wizened and hoary Makah had no fear of this patch of Pacific and would push his log canoe into the water at Neah Bay and paddle to Tatoosh Island to deliver the keepers' mail and groceries.


As we drew nearer the island, I noticed that many of the station’s buildings were in disarray or missing entirely.  At one time, around 1935, this was a busy island with about forty residents – lightkeepers, navy personnel, weather service forecasters, and lots of children, so many that a schoolhouse had to be built.  Today, it looked desolate, abandoned, uninhabited except by seabirds. I saw a small curious building that looked new, though, east of the lighthouse compound. I made a mental note to find it once I got on the ground. Despite the sense of loss and deterioration, Tatoosh Island was beautiful from the air, a giant table sitting in the sea and draped with a bright green cloth!
The helicopter descended and touched down lightly on the large X in the middle of the old Coast Guard helopad.  My two friends and I jumped out and cleared the blades, allowing the pilot to take off again for Neah Bay where he would pick up three members of the Makah tribe and bring them to the island. I was looking forward to their stories and information. 
We three broke up our small clique temporarily and began scoping out the buildings. We'd barely begun surveying when a brief and intense rain shower forced us to take shelter under the eaves of the foghouse.  It was gone minutes later, and sunshine bathed the island.  Everything glistened with magical wet sheen.
My sneakers were now wet, but it was of no consequence. I tied the laces tightly and slipped off the hood of my raincoat, ready to go exploring again. No sooner had I done this than hail arrived, singing a clattering song as it bounced off hard surfaces. How many such storms had the light station seen in its career, I wondered. Hail collected on my notebook, and a few pellets even went down the collar of coat and slid down my back.
The sound of helicopter blades was heard in the distance. Ron was returning with our Makah friends. They landed and hopped out with big smiles, not for us particularly but for the island which had long been a part of their history and culture.
Makah ancestors named the island for a legendary chief, Tatooche, a great seal hunter.  They processed fish, seals, and whales on its northeast beach and grew potatoes on the flat top.  When the government decided to build a lighthouse on Tatoosh Island in 1855, the Makah signed a peace treaty and provided assistance to the work crew.  The tower cost $39,000 and was lit December 28, 1856, Washington's third lighthouse.  The Indians continued to help out by bringing supplies and mail in their canoes, but the first three lightkeepers felt uneasy and soon resigned. 


It was a matter of cultural ignorance, said Jeanine Bowchop, head of the Makah tribal council and one of the three tribal members who had joined us.  “The early keepers simply didn’t understand the Makah way of life,” she told me as we walked the grounds together.  Later, lightkeepers would not only accept the Makah but happily join in their potlatches and dances.  Much of the tribe’s history since 1857 commingled with that of the lighthouse and its keepers.
The brick and stone tower wore a worn and weary countenance on this day, belying its distinction as the lower forty-eight’s most northwesterly sentinel.  I inspected it closely and found it sound, but much in need of repairs and another face-lift.  It was fixed up in 1999, but the force of the weather on Tatoosh could scour paint and whitewash in a hurry. The foghouse was disheveled.  The derrick was a shambles, and the old concrete radio compass and decoding station had collapsed into a pile of rubble.  On the island’s southeast side I found the most tender remains, two graves surrounded by daffodils and a white picket fence.




A Vega-type beacon shone in the lantern. It would be decommissioned a few years alter and the light put on a fiberglass pole to the west of the lighthouse. In its earliest years, the lighthouse had an opulent first-order lens, then a fourth-order lens. A steam fog whistle was added to the station in 1872. It later became a siren and then a horn. Today, it is silent. Mariners rarely use fog signals these days.
The Coast Guard had maintained the beacon in good working order, as well as the small cemetery, but the grounds and buildings had been given little attention since automation in 1977. This is often the case at offshore lighthouses.  Away from public view, they fall into decay easily and become the targets of vandals. I doubted any vandal in his or her right mind would try to get out to Tatoosh Island.

The Makah expressed interest in acquiring the lighthouse when it was relinguished by the Coast Guard.  “It’s an important part of our heritage,” Jeanine Bowchop told me before we departed Tatoosh.  “We want to preserve it as much as any other part of our tribal history.”  She added that this site is not easily accessed, and the lighthouse may never serve as a museum or inn.  But it should be saved.  “We don’t want the birds here to become extinct and that goes for the lighthouse too.”
In 2009 the Coast Guard did a complete clean-up of the island and removed any dangers--old oil tanks, defunct gasoline generators, other equipment. The lighthouse and its remaining buildings were turned over to the Makah.
Oh, did I forget to tell you what that small, new building was I saw from the air? It was a composting outhouse added by U.S. Fish & Wildlife. I know because I used it!

Photos are from the author's collection, Jim Gibbs, Coast Guard Museum NW.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Unsung Sentries of the Sea





From Scientific American, September 1892- Coast Guard Archives

            To the landsman, buoys are homely, rotund objects bobbing awkwardly in waterways and making monotonous racket with their ceaseless clanks, gongs, and whistles. Their colors and shapes give them the appearance of castaway circus clowns, but these ponderous seamarks are critical for safe navigation.
            More than 50,000 buoys serve our nation’s waterways. Most direct marine traffic, but buoys also collect weather and ocean data, mark fishing grounds, and assist in salvage and rescue operations.
            Though lackluster in appearance and seemingly uninteresting, they are revered in poetry and art. Rudyard Kipling gave a poignant tribute in his poem, The Bell Buoy:
            I dip and I surge and I swing
                        In the rip of the racing tide,
            By the gates of doom I sing,
                        On the horns of death I ride…


            Buoys were the first waterway markers America, preceding lighthouses and lightships by many years. They were made from simple floating objects, such as logs, bottles, and casks. Private citizens, mariners, and merchants saw to their placement and maintenance.

Buoy for the Panama Canal 1915-Collection of Klaus Huelse

            The shipping channel into Philadelphia was the first waterway to be marked with government funds. Wooden spars, sheathed in iron for protection, were placed in the Delaware Bay and River about 1760 and paid for jointly by the Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania colonies. The buoys had to be removed from time to time to dry out and regain buoyancy.
            A few years later, buoys were anchored in other major harbors, such as New York and Boston. The Virginia House of Burgesses was so concerned for the buoys it placed in the Chesapeake Bay in 1767, it made tampering with or removing them a crime punishable by death.
            About 1850 iron buoys first appeared. Compartmented for floatation, they proved more durable than wood. Ships sometimes hit them. Buoys susceptible to collision were equipped with jagged rings of sawteeth capable of severing tow lines if barges became hung up on a skipper's misjudgment.

Bell buoy, 1900-U.S. Lighthouse Society
A bell buoy off Cape Cod.--Author Collection

Workers for Trinity House, England's service for navigational aids, repair a buoy. Note the light on top and the bell inside the cage.--Trinity House Photo

            Bell buoys with their distinctive motion-sensitive monotone bongs also appeared in seaways about 1850. Gong buoys went a step further with a melodious series of four tones that sounded randomly. Whistling buoys, invented in 1871, used the water’s up and down motion to manufacture compressed air and force it through a whistling head.
            Mariners cheered, but not everyone liked the sounds. A women's club in Atlantic City in the 1880s complained about a whistling buoy that sent its calls landward when the wind was right: "The tone of its cry suggests approaching gloom, and conjures up visions of the ghost of Father Neptune and all the dead men at the bottom of the sea."
            They thought the buoy put a damper on tourist gaiety. Yet, some noted that its call was a good indicator of rain when carried on an east wind.

Buoy ready for the Suez Canal--Mimarlik Muzesi

Partridge Island bell buoy, New Brunswick, Canada. The Partridge Island Lighthouse can be seen in the background.-- Author Collection

Buoy on display on the waterfront at Port Alberni, British Columbia--Author Photo

            Can buoys and nun buoys, named for their shapes, were introduced shortly after the Civil War. The first lighted buoy went into service in New York Harbor in 1881 with an oil lamp it its top that burned for several days before its fuel reservoir had to be refilled. A decade later electric lighting was installed in the same buoy with cables laid from a mainland power station. The cables snapped too often, so the troublesome system was abandoned.
            Success came in 1904 when acetylene gas was used to light buoys. It worked through the action of seawater on calcium carbide, which produced gas for the flame. Scientists later compressed the gas in tanks placed inside the buoy. A single fuel tank could light a buoy for about a year. 
            As buoyage was undergoing vast improvement, world governments realized a standardized classification system was needed to bring order to busy shipping lanes. England established the first standards to be accepted internationally. Black buoys were designated as port side markers and red buoys as starboard markers for ships entering harbors. 
            Additional color codes came later ―  white for anchorages, yellow for quarantine areas, green for dredging and surveying operations, white with a black band for fish nets, orange and white stripes for special hazards, horizontal red and black stripes at junctions, and vertical red and black stripes for mid-channel markers. Number identification also was added, with even numbers on the entering starboard side and odd numbers on the entering port side.

Sea lions love to bask on buoys. They can be cranky about leaving when the Coast Guard arrives to service a buoy. This buoy is on the Inside Passage between Vancouver Island and Alaska.-- Wikimedia Commons Photo

Uruguay featured a buoy on a postage stamp.--Courtesy of Lighthouse Stamp Society

A container ship passes a buoy near Midway Island in the Pacific Ocean. Birds are a major problem for buoys. They perch and foul buoys with guano. --Wikimedia Commons Photo

            There were a few exceptions to the color coding for buoys.  The "Star-Spangled Buoy," a 4200-pound red, white, and blue nun bobbed about for a brief time in 1914 in the Chesapeake Bay where Francis Scott Key penned our national anthem. And in 1927, a colorful reception committee of buoys flanked the channel into Baltimore Harbor when Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis returned home by ship.
            Today’s International standards have changed very little. The new system still adheres to "red on right returning..." but green buoys have replaced black ones. Buoy voices are produced, for the most part, by solar-powered timing mechanisms that are constant and reliable.
            Some modern buoys boast the latest technology. Large navigation buoys, or LNBs, were developed by the U.S. Coast Guard in the 1960s. These 10-ton behemoths are 40-feet in diameter and dangle on 12,750-pound anchors. Complete with lights, fog signals, radiobeacons, and radar reflectors to intensify their "blips," LNBs require maintenance only once every six years. They have replaced lighthouses and lightships at a number of dangerous places, including the approaches to New York Harbor and Chesapeake Bay.
            Marine weather buoys also are critical to navigation. The sophisticated NOMAD — short for Navy Oceanographic Meteorological Automatic Device — is the tough hurricane buoy, able to survive severe weather at sea. The durable Discus Buoys are built to take the pounding of ice in cold waters. Both types send offshore weather information to NOAA's environmental satellites, which relay the data to ground-based stations networked with the National Data Buoy Center in Mississippi. 

The Coast Guard buoy tender Walnut was photographed with her crew working on buoys at Pago Pago, Samoa. Buoy work is dirty and dangerous. Coast Guard Photo

The Coast Guard buoy tender Sycamore sets a buoy at Valdez, Alaska. Coast Guard Photo

A buoy near Loon Island in Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire. Note the solar panels and the buoy color, yellow for research. Photo by NOAA

            Maintenance of buoys is done largely on site by Coast Guard buoy tenders — round-hulled vessels with hydraulic hoists and a low platform that serves as a hauling and work area. The old joke about the fisherman who could only count to seven because he had lost three of his fingers easily applies to buoy crews. Routine maintenance is heavy and dangerous work done either in the water or on deck after a buoy has been pulled. Tenders also respond when buoys break their moorings and drift off-station.

            Some two-thirds of the world’s navigational aids are buoys — no small responsibility for objects relied upon by everything from small pleasure craft to cruise liners to giant tankers. These humble aids get little press for their useful service, but for those whose safety hinges on their guidance, buoys are indispensable.  

A buoy lies beached on Little Cumberland Island following a storm. Heavy seas can break buoys from their anchors and wash them great distances or ashore. Cumber land Island Lighthouse is seen in the background. Photo by Ralph Eschelman.

Buoys are huge, as evidenced by this image of a man next to a beached buoy. Wikimedia Commons Photo

In far northern and southern waters, ice can cause havoc for buoys. The two pictured were found adrift together off Alaska. Ice pummeled both and set them adrift. How peculiar that they found each other--companions in suffering! Coast Guard Photo


Another northern buoy shivering in icy waters.--Coast Guard Photo
Crew members in a launch from the Coast Guard cutter Spar, are pictured going to a Large Navigation Buoy 250 miles off Adak, Alaska, near the tip of the Aleutian Islands. The lonely buoy signals to mariners and collects all sorts of data about the ocean and atmosphere. -- Coast Guard Photo

To learn more about buoys, get my book, The DeWire Guide to the Lighthouses of Alaska, Hawai'i and U.S. Territories. It contains a bonus chapter on buoys. Of course, the guide also profiles many lighthouses in the Pacific, including a few whose tales have never before been written. O buoy!!! Just call me a buoyophile!

You'll the DeWire Guide on Amazon. Or, you can contact me for an autographed copy--$25 including shipping.


Who can identify the lighthouse on the cover?


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Birthday for a Great Scientist


I suspect, if you ask any modern-day physicist who Jean-Augustin Fresnel was, he/she would know. Everyday folk, however, may not have heard of him. But anyone who drives an automobile, should thank Fresnel. He developed the science that makes car headlights work!

Fresnel, among other accomplishments, was the Father of Modern Wave Theory in optics. He was a gifted mathematician and engineer, and a person--no pun intended--who could "see the light." Perhaps most exciting for we lighthouse fanciers was his effort to produce a better lighting mechanism for  lighthouses. His work, as all lighthouse fans know, revolutionized lighthouse illumination.

Today, May 10th, would be Fresnel's 229th birthday. He was born in Broglie, France on May 10, 1788. Only a year later, on July 14, the Bastille was stormed and the French Revolution began. His father moved the family to the quiet town of Mathieu during the Reign of Terror. Fresnel was just six at the time. He spent six more years in Mathieu as the oldest child in a family of achievers. All four Fresnel brothers gained fame, but the eldest, Jean-Augustine, became the most famous.


In case you're wondering, his name is pronounced Fray-nell. I've heard many docents, teachers, and speakers call him Frezz-nell. Yikes! It grates inside my head like chalk dragged across a blackboard. Please call him Fray-nell, oui???!!! Merci.

Like many geniuses, Fresnel had a slow start in the rigorous and tunnel-visioned education system of his time. Reportedly, he could not read until about age 8. Similarly, Albert Einstein is said to have eschewed speech until age 3, when he began speaking in profound statements. Isaac Newton was absolutely non-social for much of his life, perhaps somewhere on the Autism Spectrum. 

What goes on in the brain of a genius, or any brain for that matter, remains mysterious. But what little limited research there is on the label "genius" suggests that very intelligent people have the two hemispheres of their brains well connected. You might call them superior in terms of corpus callosum--that broad band of nerve fibers connecting the left brain to the right brain. Imagine if we all could get logic and metrics and calculative ability to work in tandem with creativity and visual-spatial thinking! Woohoo! I want that!


Enough neuro-babble. Let's talk abut Fresnel's work on lighthouse optics. He surely began thinking about lighthouses as a young child when his father, an architect, was assigned to work on the great harbor at Cherbourg. Lights flashed all along the French coast at this time, perhaps mesmerizing the young Fresnel. But like other lighthouses around the world, the French beacons were feeble, barely reaching far enough at sea to prevent calamity. Their lights showed only a few miles, if that.

Young Fresnel was sent to the Ecole Centrale in Caen, France at the age of twelve, and at sixteen he began studies at the Ecole Polytechnique, due to his proclivity for mathematics. He wanted to be an engineer, which led to his acceptance at the prestigious Ecole des Ponts et Chausses. (Forgive my omission of diacritical marks for French words. I've yet to discover a way to type them on Blogspot.)

Fresnel graduated in only three years and was sent to Vendee to build roads for Napoleon, who wanted a massive military base at the town. In his free time, Fresnel experimented with his real fascination--light. This work began in 1814, but in 1815 he decided to join the King's army fighting against Napoleon, for whom he had no respect or liking. As a result, he was fired from his engineering job at Vendee. After Napoleon's "Waterloo," an unemployed Fresnel went off to Mathieu.

Biding time, he was able to work on a theory of light. Until this time, the scientific community had insisted that light was composed of particles, a "corpuscular theory" put forth by Isaac Newton. Fresnel believed light traveled in waves, and he set out to prove it. His work was much about "diffraction" and "polarization" of light. Though I took physics in college in 1971, I'm not able to articulate the science for you, so I'll simply say Fresnel's papers on the subject were met with acclaim, including an 1819 grand prize from the Academie des Sciences. If you need a more detailed description, go here for a layman's explanation of it all.

Soon after his award, he began work for the French Lighthouse Commission, trying to improve lighthouse illumination. Two of his younger brothers worked with him, Leonor and Fulgence, plus Jacques Tabouret, an excellent mechanical engineer. Saint Gobain Glassworks in France produced the prisms and other glass elements the men needed. The result was the fabulous Fresnel lens! 

An early Fresnel lens. This one was for Skerryvore Lighthouse in Scotland.

Many of us know the rest of the story...how Fresnel experimented with mirrors and prisms, arranging them in a circle around a light source, making some into bulls-eye shapes of concentric prisms and others into huge bands of convex glass. We know how he forced light to bend and twist into parallel beams (this is called collimation) and intensify it without the volume of materials needed for conventional lenses of the day. He not only significantly improved the range (distance) of a light source, but he did it with an exceptionally compact, efficient, and splendid invention. Nothing compares in beauty to the shimmering glass and brass of a Fresnel lens!

Lens of Point Arena Lighthouse, California.

Fifth-order lens at Point Robinson Lighthouse, Washington

A close-up of the prisms of Point Hueneme Lighthouse, California

Sadly, Fresnel did not enjoy a long life. Plagued with ill health for much of his youth, he contracted tuberculosis in his twenties. He struggled throughout his career with fatigue and coughing. By 1827 the disease had taken a serious toll on his body. Sensing his eminent death, the Royal Society of Britain awarded him the Rumford Medal. On July 14, 1827 at the age of 39 he died at Ville-d'Avray. He was buried at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.


The Fresnel Lens went on to become the mainstay of lighthouse illumination almost everywhere. France and England began using it in the 1820s, but the penny-pinching lighthouse service in the United States waited until 1840 to test the lens and about 1852 to purchase and install the lenses in its lighthouses. Lens makers in France launched the manufacture of the optics, followed by a company in England called Cookson, and then Chance Brothers. The United States had a brief foray into Fresnel lens-making in Baltimore at the McBeth Evans Company, a predecessor to Corning Glass. Lens-makers always put their names on the base plate of their lenses. Unfortunately, some of these have been polished off by over-zealous lightkeepers and modern-day caretakers. Look for them when you visit a lighthouse or museum with a Fresnel lens.


Today, Fresnel's name is honored with schools, bridges, streets, and more. A bust of him by David D'Angers (below) is at France's National Museum of the Sea and also at Cordouan Lighthouse where his first Fresnel lens was installed and tested. Fresnel's name also is etched on the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

For more information on Fresnel, watch this YouTube video.


My fellow U.S. Lighthouse Society board member, Tom Tag, has a detailed (far better than mine) discussion of Fresnel and his work and its spin-offs here.

Read this book!!! It's wonderful!  

For a real treat, you might consider seeing Joseph Smith's portrayal of Jean-Augustin Fresnel. Smith performed at a lighthouse conference I organized in April. The audience gave him a standing ovation! 
Contact me at lightkeeper0803@gmail.com if you like to know how to arrange a performance for your group.

Joseph Smith portrays Jean-Augustin Fresnel. He even resembles Fresnel!!.