Dr. Putnam had, by this time , served continuously as Commissioner of Lighthouses as head of the Bureau for seventeen years, appointed by president Taft, through the administrations of Presidents Wilson, Harding (when he was almost forced out of his position), and Coolidge.
This was extraordinary considering his was originally a political appointment. He kept politics out of the Lighthouse Service by skillful stubbornness. Many times, congressmen had tried to get him to support some political office seeker in the service but the Commissioner would not budge. He took refuge in legislation.
Putnam initiated a complete reorganization of the Lighthouse Service as provided by legislation in 1910 which accomplished great simplification of the work with large economies. He applied a decentralized system of management; the work being largely conducted from the district offices.
As a result, the Bureau of Lighthouses had a minimum of personnel in Washington such as: Commissioner, Deputy, Chief Engineer, Superintendent of Naval Construction, Examiner, Superintendent on General Duty (General Inspector), Radio Engineer, Draftsman and Clerical Staff, totaling about 40 persons in a service of about 6000.
Great expansion was made in the number of aids to navigation. About 1920, Putnam initiated the remarkable radiobeacon system. In 1926, more than 120 radiobeacons were in use in the Great Lakes and the coasts, the greatest boon to navigators in 100 years. He received Department approval for conferences of district superintendents from the 19 districts held in Washington about every three years, to coordinate the work of the Service.
On the human side, the well-being of the field personnel was improved by liberal retirement legislation and other provisions which stimulated loyalty and devotion to duty.
Putnam’s publications were numerous: Lighthouses and Lightships of the United States, Radiobeacons and Radiobeacon Navigation, Radio Fog Signals and the Radio Compass, Buoyage of the United States; all showed his complete mastery of his work in the Bureau.
He was on the board of National Geographic magazine and was author of a number of illustrated articles of that publication. He was president of the Cosmos Club in 1920. Putnam was a leading spirit in international conferences on aids to navigation and published his Draft of a Uniform International System of Buoyage, June 8, 1934.
It was a sad day for the Lighthouse Service when Dr. Putnam retired as Commissioner at the age of 70 in 1935. He had the complete confidence of Congress. Both Democrats and Republicans were his staunch supporters.
This excerpt is taken from “Superintendent of Lighthouses on General Duty: January 4, 1927 to September 1, 1933” in The Making of a Lighthouse Engineer, the unpublished memoirs of Commodore Frederick P. Dillon.
This story appeared in the
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