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A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouseby Theresa Levitt
Synopses & Reviews
Augustin Fresnel (1788-1827) shocked the scientific elite with his unique understanding of the physics of light. The lens he invented was a brilliant feat of engineering that made lighthouses blaze many times brighter, farther, and more efficiently. Battling the establishment, his own poor health, and the limited technology of the time, Fresnel was able to achieve his goal of illuminating the entire French coast. At first, the British sought to outdo the new Fresnel-equipped lighthouses as a matter of national pride. Americans, too, resisted abandoning their primitive lamps, but the superiority of the Fresnel lens could not be denied for long. Soon, from Dunkirk to Saigon, shores were brightened with it. The Fresnel legacy played an important role in geopolitical events, including the American Civil War. No sooner were Fresnel lenses finally installed along U.S. shores than they were drafted: the Union blockaded the Confederate coast; the Confederacy set about thwarting it by dismantling and hiding or destroying the powerful new lights.
"University of Mississippi history professor Levitt details the birth and golden age of a maritime icon in this fascinating book. The story starts in France in the early 1800s with physicist Augustin Fresnel, who countered the shortcomings of mirror-equipped lighthouses (half of the light is absorbed rather than reflected) by inventing an ingeniously designed lens that would bend the light from a source into a far-reaching beam. The first practical method for lighting the wine-dark sea was installed in 1823 on the coast of France at the elaborate Cordouan lighthouse — the 'Versailles of the sea' — which had previously been lit by a simple pile of burning wood. Levitt then turns her attention stateside, where economic, social, and cultural barriers initially delayed the adoption of the technology. By 1859, however, nearly every American lighthouse sported a Fresnel lens. Shortly thereafter, during the Civil War, the enlightenment of the heretofore obscure coast would revolutionize naval warfare and harbor defense. Levitt's study covers a short time span, but like a Fresnel lens to light, she bends plenty of material into this illuminating history of what one paper of the day poetically called 'a manufacture from which emanate the useful and the beautiful as kindred and inseparable spirits.' 60 illus. & 6 maps. (June)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
How a scientific outsider came up with a revolutionary theory of light and saved untold numbers of lives.
"Combin[es] matters of biography, science, engineering, technology, art, history, economics and politics seemingly effortlessly and definitely seamlessly. An excellent book and a joy to read."
Augustin Fresnel (1788–1827) shocked the scientific elite with his view of the physics of light. The lens he invented was a feat of engineering that made lighthouses blaze many times brighter, farther, and more efficiently than they had before. As secretary of France’s Lighthouse Commission, he planned and oversaw the lighting of the nation’s coast. Although Fresnel died young, his brother Léonor presided over the spread of the new technology around the globe. The new lights were of strategic importance in navigation, and the Fresnel legacy played an important role in geopolitical events including the American Civil War. No sooner were Fresnel lenses installed along U.S. shores (despite stubborn opposition) than they became military targets: the Union blockaded the Confederate coast, and the Confederacy set about thwarting the blockade by dismantling and hiding or destroying the powerful new lights. Levitt’s scientific and historical account, rich in anecdote and personality, is a compelling read.
About the Author
Theresa Levitt is an associate professor of history at the University of Mississippi. She lives in Water Valley, Mississippi.
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