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 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.