Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Eric Jay Dolin's "Brilliant Beacons"

Eric Jay Dolin is the best-selling author of the award-winning Fur, Fortune, and Empire; Leviathan, which was chosen by the Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe as a best book of the year; and When America First Met China.

Dolin applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse, and reported the following:
From page 99:
The lens that Fresnel installed at Cordouan used eight square lens panels, with each panel having a bull’s-eye lens in the center and prisms encircling it. The panels were arrayed in a belt on a metal frame around a lamp in the center. With this configuration alone, much of the light thrown off by the lamp would escape above and below the lens belt. To capture some of that light, Fresnel placed above the lens belt, at an angle, smaller lens panels that directed the light traveling up from the lamp onto a series of inclined mirrors that, in turn, reflected the beams toward the horizon. Below the lens belt Fresnel used inclined mirrors for the same purpose.

A clockwork-type mechanism rotated the Cordouan lens. As each panel came into the line of sight of a distant mariner, it sent out a bright flash of light, which would be followed by an interval of increasing dimness, then relative darkness, then another flash of light when the next panel came into view.
Lighthouse illuminants changed dramatically over time, running the gamut from whale, lard, and vegetable oil to kerosene, acetylene, and finally electricity. Similarly, crude lamps gave way to more sophisticated ones, and reflectors that did a poor job of projecting the light were replaced by the crown jewels of lighthouse illumination—Fresnel lenses, which not only increased the intensity of the light, but also became one of the most important and strikingly beautiful inventions of the nineteenth century.

Page 99 of Brilliant Beacons (half of which is taken up by an illustration) is in chapter 5, titled “Europeans Take the Lead,” which profiles the French genius, Augustin-Jean Fresnel, who invented the eponymously named Fresnel lens. This excerpt talks about the first Fresnel lens ever installed, which took place in 1823 at the magnificent Cordouan Lighthouse in France. Sometimes referred to as glass beehives because of their shape and appearance, Fresnel lenses did a magnificent job of refracting and reflecting the light coming from the lamp or bulb within, and focusing it to produce a strong, clear beam of light that could be seen by mariners many miles away.

Although this snippet from page 99 is quite interesting, I don’t feel that Ford Madox Ford's “test” reveals the “quality of the whole” book. The snippet doesn’t capture the incredible drama of Brilliant Beacons, nor does it give the reader a good sense of the numerous fascinating stories that the book contains. Simply put, Brilliant Beacons, a work rich in maritime lore and brimming with original historical detail, is the most comprehensive history of American lighthouses ever written, telling the story of America through the prism of its beloved coastal sentinels. Set against the backdrop of an expanding nation, Brilliant Beacons traces the evolution of America’s lighthouse system, highlighting the political, military, and technological battles fought to illuminate the nation’s hardscrabble coastlines. It includes a memorable cast of characters including the penny-pinching Treasury official Stephen Pleasonton, who hamstrung the country’s efforts to adopt the revolutionary Fresnel lens, and presents tales both humorous and harrowing of soldiers, saboteurs, ruthless egg collectors, and most importantly, the light-keepers themselves. Once you read Brilliant Beacons you will literally see lighthouses in a whole new light.
Learn more about the book and author at Eric Jay Dolin's website.

The Page 99 Test: Fur, Fortune, and Empire.

The Page 99 Test: When America First Met China.

The Page 69 Test: Brilliant Beacons.

--Marshal Zeringue