Technically, Boston Light is out. The Coast Guard’s 1st District alerted fishermen, lobstermen, and all other sailors upon the sea to that fact through an official weekly communique called the “Local Notice to Mariners.” With their Week 37, 2021, edition, released on Sept. 15, the Coast Guard listed the light as “LT EXT,” or “light extinguished.”
Ages ago, when the lighthouse was illuminated by fire, the word “extinguished” made perfect sense. Today, though, with the light powered by electricity, the term denotes a physical or power failure of some kind. That first scenario is exactly what has happened this time around.
Lighthouses host lenses of different kinds, with some historic lights known for their almost ornamental Fresnel lenses, designed by Frenchman Augustin Fresnel and debuted in the United States in the 1840s. The symmetrical arrangements of glass prisms were not designed for aesthetics, but instead for efficiency. For their time, they provided the most powerful method of projecting light out to the horizon.
Similarly, the turntable that spins a Fresnel lens – thereby creating a regular and predictable flash pattern – was designed for functionality. Unfortunately, it was also designed for an earlier age, when ships and boats moved more slowly than they do today, powered by the wind. As pointed out by lighthouse historian and lampist Chad Kaiser of Sequim, Wash., that fact put added pressure on the wheel assemblies supporting Fresnel lenses. To keep pace with the ships, and ensure that the people aboard them remained safe, the U.S. Lighthouse Service and later the Coast Guard sped up the spin rate. Unfortunately, the bronze parts of those assemblies were never meant to move so fast. As such, they wear out. In this instance, one part has had a catastrophic failure, forcing the 1st District’s Aids to Navigation Team to shroud the lens and activate a backup, dimmer beacon. According to the ATON team, “parts are on order.” If all goes well, the light should be re-illuminated during the week of Oct. 15.
Is there an easier way?
“A Fresnel lens like the one at Boston Light, manufactured in France in 1859, is like a beautiful work of functional art,” said Jeremy D’Entremont, a historian and lighthouse history author speaking for the U.S. Lighthouse Society. “It’s fortunate that many Fresnel lenses have been preserved in museums, but it’s always best to see them in their natural environment, in the lantern room of a lighthouse. Although modern technology in the form of LED optics can produce a light that’s every bit as powerful, for sheer elegance combined with efficiency, nothing matches the old classical Fresnel lenses.”
And there’s more, as Kaiser says: “Everything else that is on Little Brewster Island, the keeper’s house, the tower, the oil shed, it’s all there because of that lens.”
For now, preservation triumphs, though we may see the day when it’s replaced by a modern, plastic beacon of some kind. Little Brewster was the site of the first lighthouse built in the United States, something of which Hull residents should be rightly proud. It’s been dimmed and doused in the past, and for longer periods of time.
Its light will shine again.