Candles on the Water

Bells Rock Lighthouse, Chesapeake Bay, c. 1880s, by Unidentified photographer, Photographic negative

We recently digitized a series of lighthouse images that led me on a surprising research path. It was news to me that the Smithsonian Institution actually had a rich relationship involving lighthouses, and that scientific research conducted by the Smithsonian contributed to the technological advancements that made these beacons of safety better equipped to guide ships through treacherous waters.

Roanoke River Lighthouse, c. 1880s, by Unidentified photographer, Photographic negative, Smithsonian

The first Secretary of the Smithsonian, Joseph Henry, in addition to his duties at the Institution, also sat on the United States Lighthouse Board (USLB) from 1852 until his death in 1878. The Lighthouse Board was established in 1852 and—following complaints of the shipping industry—was charged with the upkeep and maintenance of all U.S. lighthouses. It was also responsible for making improvements to light and fog signals based on developments in these new technologies. The USLB gave way to the Lighthouse Service in 1910, which merged with the US Coastguard in 1939.

Soloman's Lump Light Station, Chesapeake Bay, c. 1880s, by Unidentified photographer, Photographic n

What got me really interested in this whole business and instigated a perusal of the voluminous Joseph Henry Papers was the fact that Henry chaired the USLB’s Committee of Experiments. I don’t know about you, but I’m inspired to start my own Committee of Experiments, appoint myself Chair, and make up some business cards because that’s a pretty great title.

Deep Water Shoals Light Station, Chesapeake Bay, 13 August 1885, by Major James A. Smith, Photograph

While on this committee, Henry conducted tests on lamp oils to ensure consistency of quality and performed experiments on acoustics that influenced a new generation of fog signals. These scientific endeavors contributed to the continuing safety of those traveling along dangerous coastlines.

Thomas Point Lightstation, Maryland, 6 a.m. Aug. 18-1885, by Major James A. Smith, Photographic nega

As Lighthouse Board Chairman he took in earnest his role as guardian for the lives and commerce at risk along the seaboard, stating in an annual report, “The alternatives of life and death, of riches and poverty, are daily hazarded.”

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