Serendipity: The lighthouse family - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

Serendipity: The lighthouse family

I HAVE just finished reading The Lighthouse Stevensons, by Bella Bathurst, the story of the family that courageously devoted itself to building the lighthouses that protected those who sailed around the Scottish coast. Bathurst describes a serendipitous discovery that had an enormous impact on the effectiveness of lighthouses. In 1781, a Swiss chemist named Ami Argand was eating dinner with his brother when he accidentally broke a glass flask. As he picked up the pieces, he happened to pass a tubular fragment above the flame of an oil lamp. Argand's brother documented what happened to the flame: "Immediately it rose with brilliancy. My brother started from his seat in ecstasy, rushed upon me with a transport of joy and embraced me with rapture."

Argand went on to design a lamp that represented the greatest breakthrough in lighting technology for 2,000 years. A glass chimney protected the flame and, more importantly, increased the draft of air that fed the burning oil. Hot combustion gases would rise up the chimney, pulling fresh oxygen over the wick, thereby reducing smoke and soot and significantly increasing the flame's brightness. An Argand lamp was as bright as seven candles.

The Stevensons employed the Argand lamp in many of their lighthouses, and also pioneered the use of lenses, reflectors and rotating mechanisms to enhance the brightness of the beam. As well as making engineering changes, they also implemented operational changes to Scottish lighthouses. Traditionally, lighthouses were run by pairs of keepers, but Robert Stevenson, the senior member of the lighthouse dynasty, demanded three keepers per lighthouse. His policy was inspired by a tragic incident that occurred at the Eddystone lighthouse when only two keepers were on duty. "One died, and the other, for fear of being suspected for murder, kept the corpse of his companion for about four weeks," reported Stevenson. "When the state of the weather permitted the attending boat to go off to the lighthouse, the poor man was found sitting upon the Rock. The body of the deceased was in such a state of putrefaction that it was long before the effect of it left the apartment of the lighthouse." In short, Stevenson favoured three keepers in order to remove suspicion of murder if one died.

This month marks one year without British lighthouse keepers. There were once 300 keepers, but they have now been replaced by a bank of computers in Harwich that monitor the generators, burglar alarms, fire detectors, radio beacons and satellite equipment in each lighthouse. The computers are run by two operators per shift: presumably the risk of being driven to insanity and murder is smaller during an eight-hour shift in Harwich than during an eight-week shift on a remote rock in the Atlantic.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Strictly Come Dancing 2014 contestants and their professional dance partners open the twelfth run of the celebrity ballroom contest

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin teaches Clara to shoot an arrow
doctor who
Arts and Entertainment
Queen Christina left the judges baffled with her audition
X Factor
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week