Living in New England, I’ve become enamored with lighthouses. My fascination has nothing to do with the quaint impression many tourists carry but rather an awareness of the ways these now antiquated emblems of peril define our landscape. Along the water, if you can identify the light, you know where you are. Believe me, there are places that would otherwise be difficult.
The night ocean, as I’ve also discovered, can be anything but romantic. It’s a different world from the one visitors encounter during the day. Cold, windy, wet, threatening, even on many summer nights. Yes, on a balmy evening, especially with moonlight, it can be magical. More often, a night ocean can be downright spooky.
Along the dark coastline, the flash of light can help you place yourself in the scene. You triangulate your position using the lights. Each lighthouse beacon has an identifiable pattern – one flash every five seconds. Or ten. Or two flashes. Their colors may be unique in that place, too – blue, green, or red, instead of clear.
The most powerful beams reach out 20 miles or more over the water. Think about that – the light doesn’t scatter but holds together using a technology that predates the laser. How much we take for granted!
And to think, in the old days the illumination came from whale oil or similar fuels.
These days it can be a 110-volt bulb the size of your thumb.
The mechanism that shapes the beams is itself a remarkable piece of technology – the Fresnel lens. Developed by the French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel in 1823, it’s a large sculptured glass cone, where each overlapping leaf joins to focus the ray into one. The larger ones are the size of a child, with the light from inside. Remarkably, these are much thinner than a conventional lens for the job would be – thus allowing more light to pass through and the lens to be mounted in a rotating base. (One we’ve visited floated in a 500-pound pool of mercury.)
A section of a 4th order Fresnel lens is featured on the cover of my booklet.
Just as incredible can be the tales of the lighthouse keepers and their families – lonely work, often tedious, cold, staying awake through the night, put at risk by the storms. Nothing nostalgic there, being faithful.
As I look at the light and its tower, my mind leaps to the universal application of light as a metaphor of religion and spiritual experience. It’s especially prominent in the writings of Quakers (Society of Friends), where it frames an understanding of an alternative Christianity – one earlier generations never dared voice completely. Still, the Light led them in fresh directions – and can still do the same for us today as it reaches far, including into the human heart and mind.
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