Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2016

Max Hansmann

An Exceptional Notable in U. S. Lighthouse History

By Debra Baldwin


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Max Hansmann was one of the people in charge of ...

Maximillian “Max” Hansmann was born in Washington, D.C. on July 24, 1856. He was one of eight children. His father, a doctor, Bernhard Theodore Hansmann, was born in Germany and educated at Heidelberg. His mother was Sophie Ranniger Hansmann. 

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Max Hansmann (1856-1952), in a photo probably ...

Max attended a private school from age 8 to 10. At age 11, he became a “folder” and a Page for the House of Representatives and entered the U.S. Treasury Department at age 13 as a laborer. He was then detailed to the office of the U.S. Lighthouse Service Board in 1872 at age 16, where he served for an amazing 55 years, retiring in 1927. 

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Max Hansmann is shown here riding his ...

His early duties included tracing and drafting, which he continued intermittently over the length of his career. In 1881, he was assigned to the office of Lighthouse Engineers in South Carolina for three months to prepare drawings for the Savannah River Lights.

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The second Thimble Shoals Lighthouse that once ...

As was stated in his retirement notice in the Lighthouse Service Bulletin of March 1, 1927, as shown in this issue of Lighthouse Digest, part of Max Hansmann’s job was also to set up exhibitions showcasing lighthouse technology at various expositions. He reminisced that, in 1873 at age 17, he was involved in positioning a lighthouse lens to be visible from inside the third floor window of the Treasury Building during the evening of the second inauguration of President Ulysses S. Grant.

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Max Hannsmann is shown here on the far right, ...

In the very next issue of the Lighthouse Bulletin in April of 1927, Max Hansmann wrote a detailed account of the event, which provides a great deal of historical insight. It reads as follows:

“At the time of President Grant’s second inauguration, in March, 1873 the Lighthouse Board has its board room on the third floor of the Treasury Building, under the eastside of the south portico, with a window commanding a view of Pennsylvania Avenue and the Capitol. A completely assembled fourth order Fresnel lens, to show red and white flashes alternately in the room, and it was suggested that this be moved to the window to flash down the Avenue on inaugural night.

“The lens, weighing about three-fourths ton and mounted on a heavy platform on large castors, was carefully, but slowly worked from a remote part of the room to its position at the window; a fall for the driving weight of the clock was rigged on the cornice of the of the nearest tall chart case, the lens leveled, and the clock regulated for the correct flashing period; the optic was then cleaned and polished and the lamp filled and adjusted.

“Lard oil was the standard illuminate of that period in the United States Lighthouse Service, the reservoir for the lower orders of lights surmounting the lens to utilize the heat of the map in maintaining fluidity of the oil.

“At that time also, the most efficient unit for domestic and street lighting was the 16-candlepower coal-gas burner, and relatively brilliant flash of the lens was a notable feature of the illumination of the Avenue, attracting much attention and comment; today it would probably remain undiscovered among the high-powered electric lights and flashing signs of the thoroughfare. Then Professor Henry, the chairman of the Light-House Board, was still working to adapt kerosene to lighthouse illumination.

“This lens was subsequently installed in the screw-pile lighthouse on Thimble Shoal, Hampton Roads, Virginia, and destroyed when the lighthouse was burned in 1909. The ironwork for the lighthouse was fabricated in a shop at the northeast corner of Fifth and H Streets and erected in the northeast corner of Judiciary Square, approximately where the corresponding corner of the Pension Office Building now stands.”

Max Hansmann was also in charge of the lighthouse exhibit at the 1881 Cincinnati Industrial Exposition and was assigned as part of a team to travel to London in 1883 to represent the United States in setting up a similar Lighthouse Board exhibit at the London Fisheries Exhibition. Reportedly, there were a number of other expositions and world fairs that he participated in during his long career. 

Additional duties over the course of his service were to take charge of the U.S. Light-House Board’s files of charts, plotting and verification of positions of aids of navigation, listing and keeping track of lights and fog signals, and preparing monthly bulletins and notices to mariners. 

At his retirement, Max was serving as the assistant engineer in charge of the hydrographic division of the then United States Bureau of Lighthouses in Washington, D.C. He retired from his post on March 1, 1927 with an “exceptional record of 55 years of service” as noted in the Lighthouse Service Bulletin. 

In his private life, Max had several passionate hobbies including bicycling, photography, and collecting records and oriental art. In 1879, he helped found the Capital Bicycle Club in Washington, D.C. (which still exists today) and was known to take his camera with him everywhere he cycled. He became captain of the club in 1884 and visually recorded many interesting trips through his photography. 

One of his most famous bicycling adventures was recounted in the August, 1883 issue of The Wheelman where Max and two other club members rode 500 miles in three weeks to visit the Luray Cave and Natural Bridge in Virginia where “no machine had ever been seen.”

As a result of many such trips, he helped form a photography group within the Club that staged America’s first photography salon, the “Washington Salon and Art Photographic Exhibition” in 1896. The Smithsonian has the original photos from this exhibit.

Max Hansmann was known to be very creative and mechanical. Along with a fellow cycler, he invented and patented a combined lamp and cyclometer in 1881 that, when attached to the axle of the bicycle, measured distance traveled. He also worked in wood, ceramics, and silver. Examples of his work include a turned wooden lamp he made on his lathe with a ceramic overlay and a kaleidoscope he made for his grand-nephew.

He was also known for collecting records. One of his friends recounted that he had an “extremely keen ear for music.” He also enjoyed collecting Japanese art. He never traveled to the Far East, but eventually became disillusioned by their military build-up and stopped collecting prior to WWII. 

Up until his death on June 12, 1952, Max Hansmann was a member of the Association of the “Oldest Inhabitants of the District of Columbia.” 

Max Hansmann was a bachelor and in relatively good health until he passed away at age 96. Per his instructions, he was cremated and his remains were sent to Keene Valley, New York where they were spread over the area he loved and where he spent his summers: his cabin in the Adirondacks which he had named “Content.”

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2016 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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