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 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 if you like to know how to arrange a performance for your group.

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

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Victoria's Light

London's "Great Exposition" opened May 1, 1851 in Hyde Park. It was an amazing place, most of the exhibit enclosed in an opulent glass building called the Crystal Palace. The public was infatuated with the place and its many inventions and ideas on display.

The exposition was the brainchild of Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. The two are pictured below with their children, opening the exposition from a carpeted dais inside the Crystal Palace. Victoria was wearing a pink gown. Prince Albert was in a red jacket.

A newspaper of the day reported:

LONDON 1 MAY 1851. Queen Victoria came today to Hyde Park to open the world’s most remarkable demonstration of human ingenuity and resourcefulness . The Great Exhibition - devised by Prince Albert, planned by a specially created Royal Commission and housed in a fairy tale structure of iron and glass. “The Crystal Palace”, itself one of the most striking artifacts on show  - is expected, during its five month existence, to attract at least 6 million visitors.

Prince Albert wanted to show the world the latest in science and technology and showcase Great Britain as a leader in the effort to move the world forward. (And, he probably wanted to upstage France's 1844 exposition.) He was a man of great intelligence, vision, and energy, though he has often been panned by historians. Perhaps being married to such a brassy and bossy woman as Queen V overshadowed his contributions.

 Below are images of the real Victoria and Albert, a rather homely but capable pair--

And below is the BBC's recent vision of the two in Victoria, played by popular British actors Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes. They are, to be sure, considerably more attractive.

Why so much talk about history's most famous Royal Couple? Well, they had a lighthouse, you see, built especially for the "Great Exposition," and it still stands today, though in a different place and in a much dilapidated condition.

The famous sentinel at first stood on the grounds of Hyde Park as a technology exhibit for the Great Exposition. But it also was Great Britain's subtle way of bragging about its lighthouse authority, Trinity House (chartered under King Henry VIII) and the organization's vanguard work. The 100-foot-tall, cast-iron lighthouse was a favorite with visitors who enjoyed climbing its spiral iron stairway for a dizzying view of the park and the glass palace that dominated the exposition. Affection for the lighthouse and for the monarchy soon produced the nickname Victoria's Lighthouse.

Though my research did not turn up an image of Victoria's Light at the Exposition, I did find an engraving of the Chance Brothers lens exhibit, seen above.

When the exposition closed at the end of 1851, Victoria's Lighthouse was dismantled and readied for genuine use somewhere in the British Empire. Rumor has it the lighthouse was at first suggested for Sri Lanka. Perhaps other destinations were planned as well. But ultimately, the pieces were taken to the Bahamas and the lighthouse was reassembled on remote and uninhabited Great Isaac Island.

Two ships were needed to ship the many parts of the lighthouse. When the vessels neared the Bahamas they encountered a powerful storm. One of the ships went aground, but the work crew on board was able to salvage all the lighthouse pieces and load them onto another ship.

When everything arrived at Great Isaac Island, the ships and their crews and passengers were greeted by a handsome white stallion running on the beach. A rope was quickly fetched, and an attempt was made to lasso the fine horse. He was too spirited, however, and led the men on a fast chase. Further down the beach, the horse stumbled, fell, and broke its neck. Tragically, it died within minutes.

The question as to why such a beautiful horse was running loose on isolated Great Isaac Island was answered some hours later when the lighthouse work crew discovered a shipwreck on the opposite side of the island. Dead bodies lay on the beach and floated in the sea. Flotsam was strewn everywhere, and the wrecked ship lay in pieces. The horse had obviously been on board. It escaped drowning after the wreck and had swum ashore, only to die from an unfortunate stumble.

The men kindly buried all the dead, including the horse. But a surprise greeted them when they found a live baby girl clutched in her dead mother's arms. The baby was taken to Nassau and given to a family. As you might guess, a ghost story arose about the mother searching for her child. She roamed the beach and the grounds of the new lighthouse and its two houses for the lightkeepers. The men named her the Gray Lady. Her nightly haunting only stopped after the men found her grave and held a proper christian burial for her, adding to the service the story of how her child had been adopted by a fine Nassau family. The restless spirit seemed satisfied and no longer appeared on stormy nights. (Or else the keepers got tired of telling her story and made up a good ending!)

Today, Great Isaac Island Lighthouse looks sad and neglected. The images below convey a less than royal fate for a once royal lighthouse. Feisty, little Queen Victoria would surely be sad to see her lighthouse so unloved. But I bet Prince Albert would be amazed to see it running on solar power.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

I'm a fan of Rudyard Kipling! (Read my blog "Kipling's Love of Lighthouses here.) His story, "The Disturber of Traffic" has a lighthouse theme. It's an peculiar tale, part tragedy and part comedy. It's very "Kiplingish."  He loved the sea and ships and lighthouses.

Below, Amazon describes the Kindle edition of the story, which is sold here


This British “poet of Empire” was born in Bombay, India, in 1865. He was sent to England for school, then re-joined his parents in India in l881, where he wrote for Anglo-Indian newspapers. From that time until his death in 1936, he traveled widely in India and then the world, covering the far-flung British Empire and writing almost continuously: poems (“Mandalay,” “If,” “Gunga Din”), children’s books (Kim, The Jungle Book), novels (Captains Courageous), and always, short stories. He glorified the idea of empire as “the white man’s burden.”

In l892, he married Caroline Balestier and they set off for an around-the-world honeymoon. Their bank failed while they were in Japan, so they made their way to Brattleboro, Vermont, where Balestier’s relatives lived. They stayed for four years. Then it was back to England, where Kipling’s popularity soared. In 1907, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first for an English writer. In the last year of his life, he wrote his autobiography, Something of Myself, which was published posthumously.

The Atlantic Monthly published Kipling’s short story “The Disturber of Traffic” in l891, a year before he came to Vermont, as he was gaining fame. It is classic Kipling: the narrator convinces a lighthouse keeper on the foggy southern English coast to let him spend the night “and help to scare the ships into mid-channel.” The keeper of the light passes the time by telling a story. After setting the scene—“The light-frame of the thousand lenses circled on its rollers and the compressed-air engine that drove it hummed like a bluebottle under a glass”—Kipling has the two men settle in, and the central story unfolds. It takes place many years before, when another keeper is assigned to an isolated lighthouse on the island of Flores, in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), where “those currents is never yet known to mortal man … They chop and they change, and they banks the tides fust on one shore and then on another, till your ship’s tore in two.”

Slowly, deliberately, Kipling describes the loneliness that plagues the keeper of this far outpost, his only companion a native who spends all his time in the water or “skipping about the beach along with the tigers at low tide, for he was most part a beast.” Kipling takes his time describing the keeper’s descent into madness, and the peculiar form that madness takes; he leaves the reader with the feeling that the story may well have been based in fact. It is presented here just as it originally appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, dialect and all.



You can find the story in PDF form on the web. Enjoy! 

Monday, April 17, 2017

A Sadly Neglected Lighthouse

This is an excerpt from the U.S. Lighthouse Society Historian's news. I've long been disappointed with the manner in which U.S. Fish & Wildlife cares for its lighthouses. Only a few are well-kept and their historic integrity preserved. This one at Hams Bluff on St. Croix is so historic it must be saved. The U.S. Virgin Islands deserves the same funding and care for its historic any of the U.S. states or other U.S. territories..

St. Croix’s Hams Bluff Lighthouse: A Study in Neglect

Article and photos by Michael Salvarezza and Christopher P. Weaver
© 2016 Eco-Photo Explorers

Eco-Photo Explorers - Lighthouse Image Collection
The hike to the Hams Bluff Lighthouse is a moderate one. Photo courtesy of authors.

The road seemed almost impassable: deep ruts, numerous potholes, nonexistent markings, very spotty pavement and pools of water were presenting a challenge not only to the suspension on our car but to our spinal cords! We began to question how the local government could even assign a number (route 63) to this road!
We were on the island of St. Croix, a United States territory with a distinctly Caribbean feel. Our destination was the seldom-visited Hams Bluff Lighthouse. After miles of steadily deteriorating road conditions, we arrived at the end of Route 63 and parked in front of the National Guard facility. The rest of the way would be on foot.

Hams Bluff VI ca 1936 HABS LOC 050083pv
Hams Bluff Lighthouse ca. 1936. HABS photo courtesy of Library of Congress

The hike to the Hams Bluff Lighthouse is a moderate one. In the tropical heat and humidity it is important to take water and to take breaks along the way. The trail to the lighthouse is all uphill for about 30 minutes, winding its way through brush, tall grass, and tropical forest. Because the conditions on the trail vary greatly, it’s a good idea to wear sturdy footwear and long pants. Sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses and insect repellent are highly recommended.
Before long, though, the canopy of vegetation gives way to blue sky and this is the sign that you have almost reached the summit of the bluff. Rounding a final turn in the trail, we caught our first glimpse of the Hams Head Lighthouse.
Our hearts dropped.

Eco-Photo Explorers - Lighthouse Image Collection
St. Croix’s Hams Bluff Lighthouse. Photo courtesy of the authors
Eco-Photo Explorers - Lighthouse Image Collection
Rust detail on exterior. Photo courtesy of authors

There before us was the rusting hulk of this once handsome and useful lighthouse. Standing on a cement platform, the 35-foot tower stood in the baking sun atop this bluff overlooking the Caribbean Sea and its deteriorating condition was immediately evident. Huge streaks of rust stains ran down its sides, the rails on the cupola were broken in spots and several areas of the tower had completely decayed through to the inside.

Eco-Photo Explorers - Lighthouse Image Collection
Interior with stairs. Photo courtesy of the authors

The door was ajar and we could make our way inside to a dank, soggy interior. The floor consisted of a crunchy layer of fallen iron and steel flakes, and the walls were all desecrated with thoughtless graffiti. A short ladder led to the second level of the lighthouse, and once upstairs we were reluctant to walk around for fear of falling through the rapidly crumbling floor. We could see from this level, however, the wonderful views of the sea and the bluff, and could easily imagine the usefulness of this lone sentinel when it was in operation.
The Hams Bluff Lighthouse was built in 1915 by the Danish government, who owned this island at the time, and was originally operated by lighthouse keeper A.L.F.L. Madsen.
The lighthouse was constructed with cast iron on a concrete foundation and was originally painted white with a black cupola. It was built atop the Hams Bluff, which rises to a height of about 360 feet above sea level, to help mariners navigate safely around the west end of the island and into Fredericksted Harbor. Shortly after it was built, the Danish West Indies were sold to the United States. St. Croix, along with St. Thomas and St. John, became United States territories and at this point the U.S. Coast Guard took over operation of the lighthouse. In the mid-1990s, the lighthouse was deactivated.

Eco-Photo Explorers - Lighthouse Image Collection
In 2010, a skeleton tower was built alongside the abandoned lighthouse and it currently operates two white flashes every 30 seconds. Photo courtesy of the authors

We stood on the bluff with the cooling breeze coming up over the hills from the water. It felt good after our strenuous and sweaty climb to this point. The views of nearby Annaly Bay and Davis Bay were stunning. But we could not shake the melancholy feeling of sadness over the condition of this poor, once proud lighthouse. Clearly it has been deteriorating for years in the harsh salty environment atop the bluff. With every hour of searing tropical sun we could imagine another flake of iron falling off the side of the tower. Neglected, forgotten, abandoned this lighthouse will soon crumble into the soil of the bluff. There have been some efforts to preserve this remnant of history but so far nothing has really resulted in any progress.
Honestly, we wonder if it’s too far gone anyway at this point.
The area surrounding and including the bluff has another, darker component of history that is also fading away into the recesses of time. Maroon Ridge is the geological feature that the area takes its name from, and during the time of Danish ownership of the island, a community of slaves was known to be here in an area the Danes referred to as Maroonberg. According to historical accounts, a particularly brutal form of slavery was operated on St. Croix, with runaway slaves severely and publically beaten and tortured. Runaways often headed for this remote area and used it as a way to leave for Puerto Rico. Thousands fled the plantations in search of freedom, and many would eventually pass through Maroon Ridge. Many were recaptured by the Danes, but many more committed suicide rather than face recapture. Documents indicate that only 300 brave and desperate slaves ever made it to Puerto Rico and to freedom.

Eco-Photo Explorers - Lighthouse Image Collection
The view from the lantern room. Photo courtesy of authors

We sat in silence, our thoughts wandering through the pages of the past to imagine a time when lighthouse keepers tended to this lighthouse and mariners depended upon its service. We contemplated the desperation of the runaway slaves who passed through here long before this lighthouse had ever been built. And we were struck by the history that lies embedded in these hills and forests, a history that is fading with each passing year.
We then stood up, bid the lighthouse good bye and began our hike down the bluff and back to our car. Along the way, a tear mixed with our sweat and dropped to the forest floor, a token of our concern for this neglected lighthouse on St. Croix and a measure of our respect for the slaves who passed through these hills. As we walked away, we stole one final glance at the lighthouse that still maintains its dignity despite years of neglect. And we wished it well.
*    *    *    *
U.S. Lighthouse Society News is produced by the U.S. Lighthouse Society to support lighthouse preservation, history, education and research. Please consider joining the U.S. Lighthouse Society if you are not already a member. If you have items of interest to the lighthouse community and its supporters, please email them to

Go here for more lighthouse news.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Hanging out with Betsie

Point Betsie Lighthouse in Michigan is among my favorites. It's more than the beauty of the place, its changing tableau throughout the year, and its rich history. It's about experiences. Memorable experiences always add to the wonder of a place.

Photo of the Aurora Borealis over Point Betsie Lighthouse by Dennis Buchner

My first visit to Point Betsie was in the fall of 2000 when I attended the Great Lakes Lighthouse Festival. Jon and took our little motorhome to Michigan and visited a number of lighthouses on both shores before stopping at Alpena for the festival.  Lighthouse Kitty was with us. She was a good little traveler, though I doubt she knew the significance of all the places she had been.

We drove the narrow dirt road back to the Point Betsie Lighthouse (it might be paved now) and parked at the end. The road simply stopped, and Jon did some tricky maneuvers to get the motorhome turned around. Lighthouse Kitty jumped onto the roomy dashboard when the motor stopped, aiming to take a nap in the warm autumn sun.

A picture of a picture-taker! Jon photographed me taking a picture of Point Betsie, with a wave tumbling over the seawall just in front of me and the wind styling my hair. It was a lovely autumn day in Michigan!

We walked the grounds and took scads of pictures. The beacon blinked a hello and a good-bye. Steady, reliable, emotive. Lighthouse beacons always affect my senses, reminding me of all the kind and solicitous meanings they possess. 

Wind rustled the grasses and bent back the shrubs and trees. High clouds stretched across the heavens, shaped by the high currents. I wondered if this place ever experienced a calm.

A friendly red dog followed us as we toured the site. Animal lover that I am, I petted and chatted with him. He seemed happy to be greeted so fondly. I'm sure, if dogs could talk, he could have told me many interesting things about Point Betsie. Did he belong to a caretaker? A neighbor? Was he a stray? Or, like Jon and I, was he just visiting for a short time?

When it was time for us to leave, he followed me to the door of the motorhome, as if he thought he might go with us. The map on the side of the motorhome had many state stickers on it, suggesting travels aplenty. I went to the tiny kitchen and fetched a piece of lunch meat. Jon grinned, pointing out that Red Dog, as we'd named him, looked well-fed. But I am a giver. Red Dog enjoyed the morsels and took them gently from my hand. A dog with manners!

Another peculiar shot was taken by Jon, who photographed me snapping a picture of Red Dog racing us as we left Point Betsie.

As we fired up the motorhome, Red Dog took off ahead of us, running at top speed. Was he showing us the way out. Or did he think he'd follow us to our next stop? I snapped a photo of him speeding along the side of the road. He had been our welcoming committee and was our farewell committee too.

Dennis Buchner capture Point Betsie in her winter wear! You can purchase his photos at Fine Art America.

At the end of the dirt access road, Red Dog stopped. I waved as we passed him. He lingered a long time, wagging his tail and watching us go, before he turned and trotted back toward the light station.

Photo by Anne Chapman

Beautiful Point Betsie Lighthouse was named by the French--Pointe Aux Bec Scies. The French name was mined from a native name that referred to the sawbill ducks (Mergansers) that lived nearby.  The lighthouse was built in 1854-1858 and first signaled to mariners in 1859, marking the route to Manitou Passage.

Point Betsie Lighthouse in 1895, from the National Archives.
The lens, courtesy of

An aerial Coast Guard photo shows the bulwarks protecting Point Betsie Lighthouse from erosion.

Today, the lighthouse offers overnight accommodations.  It also has a nice museum in the quarters. To find out more, go to the lighthouse website.

Accommodations at Point Betsie, from

Monday, April 3, 2017

Meetings & Events this Spring

Here are a couple of good events taking place this spring in the Northeast. Please circulate to your friends and contacts in the lighthouse community.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Kids Love Lighthouses Too!

Go here for instructions on making a paper cup lighthouse.

At the U.S. Lighthouse Society webpage there are LOTS of materials for kids. Click on the "Education" tab and find what you want.

My Pinterest pages also have materials for kids.