Sunday, June 23, 2019

"The Invention that Saved A Million Ships"

A major report on a major story.

From the BBC, June 21:

In the 1820s, Augustin Fresnel invented a new kind of lens and installed it in France’s Cordouan lighthouse. Suddenly, one lamp could light the way for sailors many miles out to sea.
“Were I a Roman Catholic, perhaps I should on this occasion vow to build a chapel to 
some saint; but as I am not, if I were to vow at all, it should be to build a lighthouse.” 
 — Benjamin Franklin, July 1757
Since antiquity, lighted beacons have guided ships to port. The earliest lighthouses were controlled fires on hilltops that warned vessels that they were approaching land. Over time, these signals were powered by burning coal or oil lamps backed by mirrors, which could reach navigators further out to sea. But lamp power was no match for a dark and stormy night; over centuries, broken hulls and wind-whipped sails ran aground as ships’ captains and crew perished within, unable to spot the coastline before it was too late.

All that changed in the early 1820s, when a French physicist invented a new kind of lens: a ring of crystalline prisms arranged in a faceted dome that could reflect refracted light. Augustin Fresnel installed his creation in the Phare de Cordouan, a towering lighthouse situated in France’s Gironde estuary, about 100km north of Bordeaux. Suddenly, one lamp could illuminate the way for sailors many nautical miles out to sea.

The oldest operating lighthouse in France (construction began in the 16th Century, but beacons had existed there hundreds of years prior) and the world’s first to be built in the open sea, this imposing sentinel of white stone is a Renaissance masterpiece. Equal parts cathedral, fort and royal palace, this ‘Versailles of the Sea’ is a monument to history and maritime engineering. The spot was listed as an historic monument the same year as Paris’ Notre Dame by the French Ministry of Culture, in 1862. Accessible only by boat, the Cordouan lighthouse offers visitors a revolutionary view of France’s heritage: the chance to climb inside the upper reaches of an old lighthouse, and into one man’s imagination.

A spectacular showpiece
The Médoc Atlantique is a bountiful stretch of south-west France famous for its vineyards, wines and chateaux; few tourists venture north of Bordeaux to the sleepy town of St Palais-Sur-Mer. From this vantage, the Cordouan lighthouse is unmissable on its lonely promontory, though Palais’ residents seem only dimly aware of its faithful watch. Beachside cafes touting fresh fish and Nutella-filled crepes are popular with locals, and many will take a boat ride to trawl for Coquilles St Jacques and then explore the surrounding pine forests. But once a day, a catamaran departs from Port Royan, taking passengers out of the harbour and into open waters. As the town fades from view and the ship’s sails flap wildly in the wind, the lighthouse rises up, breaking the horizon like a pillar of cloud. Most cannot help but wonder: why build such a magnificent showpiece where few would ever see it?

In fact, the Phare de Cordouan’s spectacular architecture is the result of a long and turbulent history. According to legend, small beacons had existed on the unnamed islet since the early 9th Century, when Charlemagne supposedly commanded a light be shone there. It’s more certain that the Black Prince (Edward of Wales) was the first to build an actual tower on the sandbar, in 1360. More than 200 years later, in 1584, King Henry III commissioned a lighthouse at the mouth of the Gironde. The king wanted an impressive tower worthy of his royal stature, one that would replace Edward’s crumbling edifice. He contracted famed Parisian architect Louis de Foix with orders to construct a ‘royal work’: a lighthouse with extravagantly decorated apartments, keepers’ quarters, a large lantern and its very own chapel.....MUCH MORE
The frequency of shipwrecks and the enormity of the loss of life, even up to the last century is just staggering.
A post may be in order.