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Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse

Brilliant BeaconsBy Eric Jay Dolin

Published by Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016   425 pages   hardcover    $29.95

Reviewed by Dan McFadden

Lighthouses have a peculiar hold on the imagination. Perhaps it’s the loneliness of the location, or the solitary nature of the task of lighting up the night, but who hasn’t gazed at a lighthouse and contemplated what it would be like to live there? For those who have had that wonder, Eric Jay Dolin (Leviathan, When America First Met China) has written a thorough, yet entertaining, chronicle of the history of American lighthouses. Marking the 300th anniversary of the lighting of the first lighthouse on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor, Brilliant Beacons covers the entire span of time up to the present day.

Noting that lighthouses are simultaneously a signal of safety and a warning of imminent threat, Dolin delves into the crucial role these beacons play in the lives of mariners and the maritime community. A major theme is how the history of lighthouses parallels the growth of the United States. One of the new Congress’s first acts in 1789 was to pass the Lighthouse Act, recognizing their importance of safe navigation to trade and national defense. As the country expanded, so too did the federal commitment to building and maintaining the lighthouse infrastructure.

The story of lighthouses is one of technology and engineering. Dolin relates the evolution of lighting mechanics as illuminants went from whale and vegetable oils to petroleum products and finally electricity. A highlight is the development of lamps that could focus and project a beam miles offshore. The Fresnel lens, an innovation Dolin describes as “one of the most important and strikingly beautiful inventions of the nineteenth century,” effectively solved that problem. Each lighthouse tells a story of its unique location and purpose, yet the real characters in the book are people behind the structures: engineers, mariners, politicians – good and bad – and, most of all, the keepers, many of whom faced loneliness, monotony, isolation, acts of war, and deadly storms, to name just a few of the challenges of keeping the lights lit.

Brilliant Beacons is generously illustrated and the photographs and drawings enhance the reader’s enjoyment and understanding. Anyone who likes a good story well told will be pleased with Brilliant Beacons, which is available at the Maritime Bookstore at Mystic Seaport or by calling 860-572-5386.

Dan McFadden is the Director of Communications at Mystic Seaport in Mystic, CT.


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