Digest>Archives> September 2009

Telephone Inventor Built Lightships

By Timothy Harrison and Douglas Bingham


You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Thomas Watson who worked with Alexander Graham ...

The Scientific American, in its March 17, 1900 edition, published the excellent artist rendition, shown here, of the Light Vessel #72 which became the Diamond Shoals Lightship and served in the dangerous waters off North Carolina.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
The remarkable artist depiction of the Light ...

In the early years of navigation, lightships were built to be stationed in areas where it was too dangerous to build a lighthouse. Lightship duty was considered the most dangerous duty of all its assignments by the U.S. Lighthouse Service and later by the U.S. Coast Guard. A lightship was not allowed to leave its position, regardless of the weather.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Drawing of the longitudinal section of the Light ...

Great publicity was given to the building of the Light Vessel #72 because of its special construction for the dangerous waters of the Diamond Shoals, especially since a previous lightship at the site had been torn from its moorings during a heavy gale.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
If you look closely on this vintage photograph, ...

The LV #72 was steam-propelled and electric-lighted and when completed, she was the first steel hulled lightship ever built. The vessel had three decks, the main and the spar decks running the full length of the ship, while the lower deck was broken by the forward coal bunker and the afterward bulkhead of the engine room. The hull was divided by watertight steel bulkheads into five compartments, and the quarters and storerooms were arranged to meet safety requirements as well as for the comfort of the crew.

The dynamos and engines for the electric light-plant were located on the main deck. The two steel masts were hollow to allow the wiring to reach the three lights at the top of the masts. The lights themselves were made to be adaptable to also use oil, in case the electrical system failed.

As technology advanced, six years after the LV #72 was launched, the three lamps on each mast head were replaced by single 375mm electric lights. The vessel was also equipped with a searchlight and a fog bell as a back up to the steam powered fog whistle.

Initially the LV #72 served at the Diamond Shoals station alternating with the LV #69 and then the LV #71 that had been built in 1897.

Interestingly in August 1918, the LV #71, while serving as the Diamond Shoals Lightship in the waters off Cape Hatteras Lighthouse spotted a German submarine, the

U-140, and sent a warning notice to ships in the area. The German U-Boat intercepted the message and surfaced by the lightship. The crew of the U-Boat sent a message that the lightship would be sunk, and with no weapons to defend itself, the crew of the lightship abandoned the vessel. Once the lightship crew had safely disembarked the Germans open fire and sank the lightship.

The LV #72 was sent to the area to replace the sunken LV #71 lightship. In later years, the LV #72, as well as serving as a Relief Lightship, it also served as the

Cape Charles Lightship and the Chesapeake Lightship with both locations in the waters off the Virginia coast and later as the Cross Rip Lightship in Massachusetts. The LV #72 was retired from duty in 1937.

The Light Vessel #72, along with a number of other light vessels, including the LV 90, 91, 92 and 93, were built at the Fore River Engine Company in Massachusetts. The Fore River Engine Company, which also built a large number of ships for the U.S. Navy, before it changed its name was originally known as the Watson Steam Engine Co. It later became part of Bethlehem Steel and later the shipbuilding division of General Dynamics.

However, what has been lost in the pages of time and forgotten by many is that the company was founded by Thomas Augustus Watson.

All of us have learned of the first words uttered over telephone on March 10, 1876 when Alexander Graham Bell said, “Mr. Watson, come here, I need you.” Believe it or not, the Watson from the telephone and the Watson from the shipbuilding company are one and the same.

In 1881, at the age of 27, Thomas Watson resigned from Bell Telephone Company, and using royalties from his share of the invention of the telephone, he founded the Watson Steam Engine Company that eventually became the Fore River Engine Building Company and later the Fore River Shipbuilding Company.

Thomas Watson, the man who assisted Alexander Graham Bell in the invention of the telephone, and the man whose name was the first words ever spoken over the telephone, is the same man who oversaw the construction of some of America's lightships that were built for the United States Lighthouse Service.

Now you know another amazing part of America's often forgotten and sometimes lost lighthouse history.

This story appeared in the September 2009 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.

to Lighthouse Digest

USLHS Marker Fund

Lighthouse History
Research Institute

Shop Online

Subscribe   Contact Us   About Us   Copyright Foghorn Publishing, 1994- 2024   Lighthouse Facts     Lighthouse History