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Last Lights

Spring 1993 | Volume 8 |  Issue 4

ON THE SHORE: Everybody loves a lighthouse. While most artifacts of technology—cars, factories, computers—inspire both positive and negative reactions, lighthouses are nothing but good. They do not pollute, they save many lives while costing none, the labor they require might vex the gregarious but is not particularly exploitative, and only a curmudgeon would complain that they ruin the landscape. There is no such thing as an ugly old lighthouse, and despite their connotations of darkness, remoteness, and solitude, they are among the warmest, fuzziest things that technology has to offer.

The appeal of lighthouses is not hard to explain. The basic concept—a bright light in an elevated place that can be seen from far away—is easily grasped, even if the complexities of sixth-order Fresnel lenses elude most laymen. The idea dates back to hillside signal fires mentioned in Homer; a 450-foot-high Egyptian lighthouse at Pharos was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. As radar and other high-tech position finders become increasingly prominent, and as automation makes the romantic figure of the lonely keeper virtually extinct, the lore of lighthouses is in danger of being lost. Yet they continue to thrive, not only as a stirring figure of speech but as a still-important aid to navigation.


It’s not surprising, then, that old lighthouses, whether in service or not, are a favorite target of preservationists. Since at least 1951, when letters from schoolchildren helped save New York City’s “Little Red Lighthouse” (formally known as the Jeffrey’s Hook lighthouse) under the George Washington Bridge, people of all ages have been working to protect the towering beacons from destruction. The Jeffrey’s Hook story culminated in the spring of 1991, when the plucky lighthouse was declared a city landmark; for many others, the struggle continues. A recent issue of The Keeper’s Log , official publication of the United States Lighthouse Society (an enthusiasts’ group whose address is 244 Kearny Street, Fifth Floor, San Francisco, CA 94108), gives details on many such efforts.

The Cape Hatteras lighthouse in North Carolina is America’s tallest, at 208 feet. Over the years its distinctive barber-pole-style decoration has made it a familiar sight to mariners and tourists alike. Recently the structure has faced threats from within and without. The internal hazard was simple rust and decay, resulting from more than a century of pounding by rain, winds, and surf. That problem was eased considerably by a one-million-dollar restoration, completed last year, which made the upper portion as good as new, or better.

The threat from outside is erosion. When the lighthouse was built, in 1870, it was 1,500 feet from the sea. Now the margin is down to 300 feet, close enough that one severe storm could be enough to undermine the tower’s foundation and topple it. The state of North Carolina, which generally favors a laissez-faire approach to beach erosion, would like to move the lighthouse inland and let the sea have its way. Most environmental groups support this solution.

The Army Corps of Engineers, with its traditional preference for the techno-fix, has come up with a complicated plan to preserve the lighthouse in its present location by means of jetties, groins, seawalls, and sand pumping. Fishermen and beachside motel owners, who would like the coastline to stay where it is, tend to side with the Corps. As of this writing, the latest in a three-decade series of expert panels was preparing a study. It is not clear what effect the change of administration in Washington will have, but in view of the complex tangle of local, state, and federal agencies involved, the safest bet is more studies. Meanwhile, lighthouse buffs pray for mild weather.

The elements are a threat to most lighthouses, but some have faced even bigger threats from humans. Back in the 1960s a group of hippies set up housekeeping in the abandoned Punta Gorda light station in Northern California. The sheriff chased them out, but living at the station proved irresistibly groovy, and the flower children kept moving back. Eventually the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) resorted to burning down several of the buildings, a solution that it later conceded was a bummer. Still, the tower itself remains, along with a nearby structure that was used for storing oil. Each year a BLM crew hikes a hilly three and a half miles, toting supplies the whole way, to paint what is left.

Lighthouses were built to keep people safe from shipwrecks. Now many lighthouses are themselves in danger and need people to come to the rescue.

The St. Augustine lighthouse in Florida experienced vandalism of a less peace-minded sort when a teenager with a rifle used its multisection lens for target practice one day in 1986. The lens remained damaged but decreasingly functional until 1991, when a local buff decided to reconstruct it. He made precise measurements of undamaged parts, using a three-dimensional digital scanner originally designed for medical uses. Computers turned the data into drawings, which were the basis for the molds used to cast replacements. With its lens restored thanks to 1990s high tech, the 1874 lighthouse is once again a working aid to navigation.

“Old Baldy” lighthouse on Bald Head Island is North Carolina’s oldest. It long ago stopped guiding sailors, but local residents still find the 110-foot octagonal brick tower inspiring. In 1985 they formed a campaign to restore it by letting donors “adopt” one of the 108 steps for a thousand-dollar contribution. Last fall, on the 175th anniversary of Old Baldy’s inauguration, the committee held a ceremonial reopening, and though 50 steps still remain orphans, it is now possible to climb to the top and get a keeper’s-eye view of the Cape Fear area. After further spiffing up, a dedication ceremony will be held around Easter; future plans include restoration of the keeper’s cottage, which will eventually be used as a museum and research center.

Every type of technology has its devotees; there are even people who collect old air-traffic-control equipment. As every reader of Invention & Technology knows, they all hold important lessons as well. But lighthouses have an advantage over coal mines and chemical plants. Besides being a window into our past and a reminder of our forebears’ ingenuity, they’re cute, and that’s why drives like the one to save Old Baldy will continue as long as there are lighthouses to preserve.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.: Bern Dibner was into the history of technology before it was fashionable. Starting in the early 1930s, he collected scientific and technological books, manuscripts, instruments, and other artifacts from the fifteenth century to the present, eventually opening the Burndy Library in Norwalk, Connecticut, to house it all and display it to the public. (See “Inside the Burndy Library,” Invention & Technology , Fall 1985.) Dibner amassed a collection to rival those of the world’s most famous museums, and along the way he developed a fervent belief in the importance of studying the antecedents of today’s technological accomplishments.

In addition to collecting, Dibner wrote many scholarly works, including monographs on Leonardo da Vinci, Alessandro Volta, Luigi Galvani, and Hans Christian Ørsted. (Dibner was an electrical engineer, so electricity and magnetism held special significance for him.) To unite his interests in objects and ideas, he founded the Dibner Institute just weeks before his death in January 1988. His son David carried on the work of planning the institute and negotiating with university administrators. From the start Bern Dibner had meant for the institute to be located in the greater Boston area, and in October 1990 an agreement was reached with MIT.

The Dibner Institute will serve as a center for scholarship in the history of science and technology, paying particular attention to connections between the two disciplines and the wider world of scholarship. In the words of Charles M. Vest, the president of MIT, the institute is meant to “help create opportunities for new and healthy discourse” among science, engineering, and the humanities. It will combine the resources of Dibner’s exhaustive collection with the high-powered academic reputations of MIT, Boston University, Brandeis, and Harvard, partners in a consortium that will administer the institute. Last fall its home, in a former animal-research laboratory in Cambridge, was finally ready, and the institute threw a party to celebrate.

Visitors to the dedication ceremony toured a handsome modern building decorated in colors that run the gamut from tan to beige to blond. On the ground floor some of the library’s treasures were on display in a public exhibit room. These included a German treatise on mineralogy from 1580, a sheet of calculations in Albert Einstein’s hand, a manuscript page from Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man , a case full of centuries-old sundials, and many early brass-and-glass electrical devices. The library also has a reading room and stacks with more than 40,000 volumes; classrooms, offices, conference rooms, and such are upstairs.

Since its founding four years ago, the history-of-technology program at MIT has grown as fast as a Route 128 software firm. Being home to the Dibner Institute will improve its status even more. But Thomas P. Hughes, head of a rival department at the University of Pennsylvania, does not seem to mind the competition. In his remarks at the dedication, the ubiquitous Mr. Hughes spoke of the “daunting task” of taking on “the messy and complex history of science and technology” and said that “we should all fasten our seat belts and enjoy the ride.” Thanks to the generosity of Bern Dibner, scholars have a most luxurious vehicle to make the journey in.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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