Iron Lighthouses of the 19th Century
Join Engineering Heritage Victoria (EHV) in this session to learn about the iron lighthouses of the nineteenth century and gain an appreciation of the rich history of engineering in a little known area.
This session will share how engineers have come up with innovative methods to overcome problems of expense and site difficulties to achieve methods of providing safe passage for ships during the 19th century.
The iron lighthouse was entirely a creation of the nineteenth century and was, within a more limited sphere, quite as revolutionary as developments such as the railway locomotive, submarine telegraphy or electric lighting. The construction of masonry lighthouses on rocks in the open sea had been fraught with incredible difficulties - part completed work was washed away, boats were wrecked and men were drowned. The development of iron frames which could be quickly fixed, and which offered less resistance to the waves, was an immediate improvement. The development of the screw pile then allowed lights to be built on sandbanks where before, nothing could be constructed.
But there were still further developments. Alexander Gordon's solid cast iron trunks were the equivalent of the traditional masonry trunk, but far quicker and cheaper to build They were exported from Britain all over the globe - including Ceylon, Bermuda, Jamaica and Australia But quite remarkably, none were built in Britain itself, because of the jealousy and opposition of the Stevenson family of lighthouse engineers, and the sway they exerted over Trinity House and the other lighthouse boards.
If the first half of the century was dominated by British lighthouse fabricators, in the second they were challenged by the USA, the Netherlands and France, and it was France which produced two of the most extraordinary structures – iron frames clad in sheet metal, with an onion-liked swelling at the base. From about 1860 the Chinese Lighthouse Service was run by the British, but imported towers and lights from France as well as Britain. It has a history which no other lighthouse service can match - its lights were captured by the Russians and the Japanese, and the Zaitan lighthouse had to suspend operation when the lighting apparatus was carried off by pirates.
Miles Lewis is an architectural historian who specialises in the history of building technology, in particular of prefabrication.