Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2017

From the Commodore

“A Chance Lens Fiasco”

By Debra Baldwin

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Frederick P. Dillon

I must report another fiasco in which I was involved. Frying Pan Lightship No. 94 was built in 1911 and delivered to Charleston to be placed at the entrance of the Cape Fear River far out to sea. It was the latest thing in lightships with a single central twenty-four inch in diameter steel mast unusually high (too high), to support a great lantern within which was a big compound pendulum lens. That is to say, a big lens mounted on gimbals, with a long very heavily weighted pendulum.

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The idea of the pendulum was to keep the lens always vertical as the vessel rolled or pitched or both. Then, why was the great cast iron weight of the pendulum covered with a rubber cushion and securely made fast to the inside of the hollow mast by three lanyards? I was ordered to release the pendulum on station on my next inspection of the lightship.

The weather was not too smooth when Captain Johnson worked the Cypress astern of Lightship No. 94 off the entrance of the Cape Fear River some months later. All lightships were supposed to be designed to pitch and roll very little, but 94 was “wallowing” in a cross sea. The tender made a “lea” (protection from the sea) for me. The quartermaster lowered a dinghy and brought it to the ship’s ladder slung over the side. I eased myself down the ladder and watched the seas for a good chance to board the dinghy and with similar caution, seized the lightship ladder and was soon aboard.

As a matter of routine down in the bilges I went: a new ship, no rust, nicely painted with red lead. The skipper took me all around. As I started to go up the ladder inside the lantern mast, old Captain Gustafson shook his head. “Got a pretty high mast, this boat,” he said dubiously. “And that dingus up there at the light don’t look good to me.”

I was soon in view of the three lanyards holding fast the pendulum. I carefully eased off one, then number two, and three, but holding the “bitter” ends of all three through their fastenings. The more slack I gave to the pendulum, the more it swung as if wild and not designed to do its regular duty of overbalancing the lens, until the rubber bumper smacked against the side of the lantern and bounced off. “A few more slams like this will smash the whole works,” thought I. So, I managed with great difficulty to tie up the wild machine.

Lack of ventilation, and swaying up so high, made me leave my lunch on the lantern deck and very weakly I managed to board the tender and reported my failure to the Bureau. No one had the courage to dispute my findings. The idea of the pendulum lens came straight from Chance Brothers, England. It looked all right but required careful design and experimentation.

In 1945, during World War II when I was at the Lighthouse Depot, London, I spied a lightship brought in from the War area to the deck. The hollow steel mast was much shorter than that on 94. In the lantern was a compound pendulum lens securely tied by three lanyards. I said to the mate who showed me around, “I suppose you untie the pendulum when you get on station. Great idea, is it not?” “Great idea, my hat!” said the mate. “If we let that thing loose, it would smash itself to pieces.” I agreed….

This excerpt is taken from “Lighthouse Engineer—Sixth District, Charleston, S.C., 1911 to 1917” in The Making of a Lighthouse Engineer, the unpublished memoirs of Commodore Frederick P. Dillon.

This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 2017 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.

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