You Had Me at Fresnel: Book Review

June 7, 2018

Lighthouse: An Illuminating History of the World's Coastal Sentinels

R.G Grant

Black Dog & Leventhal Press




Fresh out from the Black Dog & Leventhal Press is a new book by R. G. Grant, Lighthouse: An Illuminating History of the World’s Coastal Sentinels.  Grant is an Oxford University trained historian based in London.  He has published over 40 books, most of which are on popular military topics.  His latest, Lighthouse, could be described as a heavy read coffee table book.  The book is very pretty and while interesting and factual is in no way scholarly.  It will make your dinner company swoon accordingly, likely both men and women.  Mr. Grant has put libraries and archives from around the globe to good use by ferreting out quality blue prints and diagrams of lights throughout the world.  He credits all of them, no less than 160 on one page in tiny print so that they all fit. Nor was he shy about the ever so logical 19th century intaglio etchings to be found in repositories.  With this Mr. Grant makes the strongest case possible for libraries and archives to retain their print collections, though he does draw from digital collections including the Library of Congress and New York Public.


Four Michigan lights get a mention.  The Mackinac State Historic Parks Collection gets credit for the two lovely diagrams of both the Big Sable and Little Sable Point lights.  Part of the joy of the book is that the facing pages feature equally stunning diagrams of French lights of similar interest.  One never knew that the French could make even their lights shapely.  Stannard Rock Light on Lake Superior gets a mention along with the only Lake Huron light, Spectacle Reef Light.  Spectacle was a surprise as it lays 11 miles off the coast from Cheboygan, a point the author is sure to mention, and thus has, so far, low tourist traffic.  A bit over two years ago now Spectacle was sold on the federal auction block to a young man from Boston for less than $50,000 dollars, sight unseen.  When I mean young, his mother came with him on his first attempted trip to the new purchase.  They were not sure they could even find a boat that would take them out to the light.  Spectacle Reef was included due to the technological changes that made the design possible.  There was just enough technical explanation to justify the quality illustrations.  The image of Spectacle Reef on page 33 is credited to the Library of Congress.


Paying the bills by writing has proven to be tricky for many a would-be writer yet Mr. Grant seems to have found the touch.  In this book he leads with the not so proverbial jewel in the crown, the Fresnel lens.  The very first illustration is a line drawing of a lens.  Flip the page and you will see a black and white photo that manages to catch the light of one in place.  Opposite, the title page cleverly illustrates the radiating effect of the lenses by incorporating and distorting the text title in another lens line drawing.  The next two pages featured colored diagrams of lighthouse lanterns or the cages in which the lenses rested.  The totality of chapter 3, “A Light in the Darkness, The Evolution of Lights and Lenses” is 36 pages of just that.  There is fast mention of 16th century illumination methods, likely used for millennium, but the major credit goes to the French.  Grant argues that it is not that they had better technology but that they had superior linkage between science, government and civil engineering.  By 1819 Augustin-Jean Fresnel (1788-1827) was one of the few scientists on a governmental payroll.  In this case, few could argue that bureaucracy was a good thing.


The oddest thing about this book is that it came out one month after Sentinels of the Sea: A Miscellany of Lighthouses Past, also written by Grant yet published by Thames & Hudson in London.  The perplexities continue that some of the exact same images are used in both books and are clearly formatted by the same designer.  Such oddities aside, if it works for both publishers, who is to care.  The book is informative and readable.  Perhaps more importantly one can imagine it being read and inspiring others. 


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