A Short Bright Flash, 2
After reading the first third of Theresa Levitt’s A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse and writing about it two weeks ago, I proceeded to put it aside for over a week. The opening portion about Fresnel’s scientific career and his development of lighthouse technology in early nineteenth-century France was fascinating, but then I got bogged down as Levitt traced Fresnel’s successors and France’s successful effort by mid-century to light its coast.
Eager to get on with other books, I returned to A Short Bright Flash a few days ago, finishing it yesterday morning. After treating France and Britain, Levitt turns to the United States. In a long chapter, she lays out the harm done by Stephen Pleasonton, head of the US Lighthouse Establishment, over decades in refusing to introduce Fresnel’s technology. Finally, in 1847, Congress approved the construction of new lighthouses in five locations, the first to be completed being our very favorite lighthouse, Nantucket’s Sankaty Head. (Though the one we love is not the original.) Things picked up from there, only for the Civil War to bring the systematic destruction of Fresnel lenses across the South’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts, the subject of another chapter.
[Photo by me, September 2011]
A whirlwind final chapter takes us back to Europe, down to the Suez Canal, and through World Wars I and II, the latter of which brought radar and a halt to the production of first-order seacoast lights. Levitt observes that Fresnel’s “original design remains downright ubiquitous, spurred by the increasingly inexpensive techniques of molding glass and plastic. Fresnel stage lights have become a staple of theaters everywhere. Stoplights, car lights, and overhead projectors all employ the genius of his optical insight. … Even as the U.S. decommissions many of its lighthouses, the lenses become museum centerpieces.”
In this era of anti-government politics in the US, one point that emerges from the book is that the creation of a system of lighthouses in France—and later the US—depended entirely on government investment. Both because of the difficulty of manufacturing precision lenses and the scale of production required, no private company would have taken on such a project by itself. Levitt contrasts France with Britain.
The glass industry was undergoing its own transformation. In many ways, it was emblematic of the French style of industrialization, characterized by much stronger government involvement than what was seen with the English model.
Writing about the Exposition Universelle of 1855, in which a Fresnel lens was on prominent display, Levitt quotes from the exposition guide, which
stressed the lens’s role as France’s gift to humanity. Its manufacture was an “eminently national industry,” which showed France in its best light:
The invention of these devices, due to a French engineer, encouraged and developed by the public administration, brings to a very high degree the imprint of the particular nature of our spirit and general tendencies, for which it was deduced from considerations of a purely scientific order, conceived outside of any private speculation, in view of general interests, and classed immediately in the number of benefits for humanity. …
Two of the features that separated French industrialization from its English counterpart were its strong contingent of scientifally trained state engineers and its lesser dependence on private investment.
Turning to the US of the 1840s and 1850s, Levitt writes that the “government’s investment in rail, steam, and telegraphs was all done with an eye toward improving trade. The Fresnel lens sat perfectly within this constellation, as an exemplar of scientific technology, an enabler of increased trade, and a compelling argument for government investment.”
I suppose I’ve made my point. But let me offer one more quote, from Levitt’s closing assessment of Fresnel’s legacy.
Fresnel’s lens united the major themes of burgeoning modernity: science, industrialization, national ambition. There is a well-known phrase in French that touches on the particular mixture of glory, nationalism, and global ambitions: Faire rayonner la France, or “make France radiant.” This is precisely what the Fresnel lens did, in the most literal of ways. Making their way into the remotest corners of the world, these products of France not only shed light on the seas, but also illuminated the French system of valuing pure science and providing state support for industry.
With this in mind, one might have a look at the letter that Nobel Prize laureate and National Cancer Institute director Harold Varmus wrote two days ago to NCI staff, grantees, and reviewers, the full text of which is embedded in a post by Jim Fallows earlier today. A radical segment of today’s Republican Party is showing, through the shutdown, how little they value pure science. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise, given their propensity for denying scientific evidence.