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French Lighthouses: A Sin To Civilization

French Lighthouses Are Disintegrating

Eckmuhl Lighthouse Spiral StaircaseHarsh words perhaps, but those are direct quotes from Marc Pointud, the founder of the National Society for the Patrimony of Lighthouses and Signals, as stated in an article today from the Tuscaloosa News. Pointud, an expert in maritime treasures, is sounding the alarm to save at least some of these national treasures from the rot that as overtaken them since lighthouse keepers were put out to pasture. Or sea in this case. Between automation, time and the tolls of weather, rot has set in. The lighthouses are still required by French law, but unfortunately their preservation is not required. All that’s wanted is light that is visible up to 30 miles out to sea. The French, after all, don’t quite trust American GPS.

Home of the Fresnel Lens

France, as almost every lighthouse lover knows, contributed one of the biggest improvements to our lights at sea through the physiscist, Augustin Jean Fresnel. Fresnel singlehandedly re-engineered the lighting system with his creation of the amazingly efficient (and amazingly beautiful) Fresnel lens in the early nineteenth century.

Fresnel devoted his life to the study of light waves and optics, and through a series of prismatic reflections and diffractions, came up with a way of concentrating light waves and magnifying them. As Commissioner of French Lighthouses, he installed them in towers, and the lens was quickly adopted throughout Europe for use in lighthouses.

Inside the Umpqua Lighthouse Fresnel Lens

Inside the Umpqua (Oregon) Lighthouse Fresnel Lens

Manufactured at first only in France, and later in Great Britain, each lens was built specifically for a particular lighthouse. Using crown glass, which has a low dispersion and refractive index, and is considerably harder than flint glass, the prisms were blown and then flattened to a disc with centrifugal force. They were then put together in a way that collected the light from the source (flame), and reflected it back out. Instead of using only 17% of the available light, it made it possible to reverse that and use 83% of the light.

Fresnels are ranked according to “Orders,” with the First Order being the largest at about twelve and a half feet. Second Orders are around seven feet, Third Order is about five feet, and Fourth Order about two and a half feet. There are also Fifth and Sixth Orders, at twenty-one and seventeen inches respectively.

The Eckmuhl Lighthouse: An Example

In a part of Brittany called Finistere (The Ends of the Earth) is one of France’s most beautiful of its 150 or so remaining lights. Philip Gentry, head of the Department of Lighthouses and Signals in this region, is doing his best to save the Eckmuhl Lighthouse, built in the 1890s (photo of stairs at top). Its construction was due to a bequest from the daughter of one of Napoleon’s marshals, to make up, she said, for the blood her father had spilled.

From the story:

What was constructed is beautiful: a tower of local Kersanton granite 60 yards above sea level, with a curving staircase of 272 steps tiled in pale blue-green opaline glass, rising to a wood-paneled room with a statue of the marshal and a marble ceiling, with brass finials. Now, many of the opaline tiles, no longer made, are cracked or broken, the iron is rusting, and the paneling and the ceiling have been dismantled to replace the rotted beams. The marshal is kept in a storeroom.

Eckmuhl Lighthouse Lantern

Eckmuhl Lighthouse

After convincing his department, and working with the Ministry of Culture, Genty has acquired $239,000 to caulk the granite and to replace the rotting beams and rusted iron. Genty is working with Pierre Alexandre of the Finistère office of the Culture Ministry, who notes that the region’s lighthouses, because of both their navigation and historical value, are the most important in France. He is providing some money for technical assessments of the five lighthouses here classified as historic monuments.

We Can’t Save Them All

Unfortunately, Alexandre is quoted in the story as saying, “At this point, we can’t think about investing in the lighthouses in the high seas. It’s not considered feasible.”

A schoolteacher in Brest, a Mr. Fichou is also quoted in this story. He wrote his doctoral dissetation on French lighthouses and has published three books on them.

“The question is what we can afford to save,” Mr. Fichou said. “It’s very expensive, and we’ll never be able to save those on the high sea. Nor can we get tourists out there — it’s too expensive and too dangerous.” Building them was a great engineering challenge, and the engineers tried to make them elegant, he said, “but it was a time that’s finished.”

Because they are deteriorating, “of course our interest is awakening,” Mr. Fichou said. “But there is beauty also in the fact that some are crumbling.”

Brest ferry captain Didier Salud disagrees. The ferries have two G.P.S. systems, but they are often inaccurate, Captain Salun said, adding, “We know the signals and rocks. And the lighthouses. It’s the first landmark you see, the beam of light, and we know where we are.”

I highly recommend reading the entire article. There is a lot more there than I’m able to publish, including the state of some of the historical lighthouses, Le Stiff, Kereon and Creac’h. And an interview with a former lightkeeper. It is sad to read, that the home of our beloved lenses has let the lighthouses get to this state.

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