Saturday, April 16, 2016

"Brilliant Beacons"

Eric Jay Dolin is the best-selling author of the award-winning Fur, Fortune, and Empire; Leviathan, which was chosen by the Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe as a best book of the year; and When America First Met China.

Dolin applied the Page 69 Test to his new book, Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse, and reported the following:
From page 69:
Soon after the Argand lamp was introduced, Europeans began pairing the lamps with parabolic reflectors, creating lighthouse lights that were far more effective than those that had come before. The reflectors were typically made of metal clad in a thick layer of silver that was polished to a mirrorlike finish to increase its reflectivity. In a few instances a thick plano-convex glass lens—flat on one side, convex on the other—was placed in front of the lamp in an attempt to magnify the light beam and make it stronger, but this addition was soon discarded when it was discovered that rather than magnify the light, it made it worse.
Europeans had long used coal, wood, candles, as well as oil lamps to light their lighthouses, but in the 1780s a major leap in lighthouse illumination took place. It began with the work of the Swiss-born physicist Aimé Argand. In 1782, while living in France, he developed a new type of oil lamp. Instead of a single, solid wick it used a hollow circular wick placed between two thin concentric brass tubes. This arrangement increased the amount of oxygen reaching the lighted wick by forcing air to flow up through the inside of the inner tube, as well as over the outside of the outer tube—more oxygen made for more efficient combustion, less smoke, and a brighter light. The wick could be raised and lowered by turning a knob, and oil was fed by gravity to the wick through a pipe connected to a reservoir.

Page 69 of Brilliant Beacons (half of which is taken up by an illustration) is in chapter 3, titled “Lights of a New Nation,” which follows the evolution of lighthouses from the end of the American Revolution up through the end of the War of 1812. One element of that chapter is the creation of the Argand lamp, and how it revolutionized lighthouse lighting.

Although this snippet from page 69 is quite interesting, I don’t feel it captures the incredible drama of Brilliant Beacons, nor does it give the reader a good sense of the numerous fascinating stories that the book contains. Simply put, Brilliant Beacons, a work rich in maritime lore and brimming with original historical detail, is the most comprehensive history of American lighthouses ever written, telling the story of America through the prism of its beloved coastal sentinels. Set against the backdrop of an expanding nation, Brilliant Beacons traces the evolution of America’s lighthouse system, highlighting the political, military, and technological battles fought to illuminate the nation’s hardscrabble coastlines. It includes a memorable cast of characters including the penny-pinching Treasury official Stephen Pleasonton, who hamstrung the country’s efforts to adopt the revolutionary “Fresnel Lens,” and presents tales both humorous and harrowing of soldiers, saboteurs, ruthless egg collectors, and most importantly, the light-keepers themselves. Once you read Brilliant Beacons you will literally see lighthouses in a whole new light.
Learn more about the book and author at Eric Jay Dolin's website.

The Page 99 Test: Fur, Fortune, and Empire.

The Page 99 Test: When America First Met China.

--Marshal Zeringue