I visited South Foreland Lighthouse on 4th-Aug-2019. It was quite an interesting trip. This is mainly because the lighthouse is very historic. There are a few scientific-firsts associated with the lighthouse. South Foreland Lighthouse was originally built to help ships to avoid the Goodwin Sands, which has caused around 2,000 shipwrecks. The content of this article is a combination of information from the Wikipedia, and the information the tour guide told me.
Originally a pair of lighthouses were built at South Foreland. The lighthouse I visited was originally called South Foreland Upper Lighthouse. Another lighthouse was built closer to the cliff. It was called South Foreland Lower Lighthouse. Originally the ships found the correct navigational path by using these two lighthouses. When the Upper Lighthouse was exactly behind the Lower Lighthouse, that is when the Lower Lighthouse obstructed the bottom half of the Upper Lighthouse, the ship would have been at the correct path.
The Lower Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1904, while the Upper Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1988. The Lower Lighthouse is currently owned by a Russian, it was previously owned by an American. The Upper Lighthouse is currently owned by the National Trust.
The first pair of the lighthouses were built in 1635 by Sir John Meldrum, the light was provided by an open coal fire burning in a brazier on the roof. In 1730, William Knott began his service as the lighthouse keeper. His family over five generations would be the lighthouse keeper for the next 175 years. In 1793, the Upper Lighthouse was rebuilt with an oil lamp and parabolic reflectors in place of the brazier. The Lower Lighthouse was similarly rebuilt two years later.
In 1832, the Corporation of Trinity House formally took control of the Lighthouses from Greenwich Hospital 1)2). In 1842, the Upper Lighthouse was refit with multi-wick oil lamp and first-order Fresnel lens. The tour guide said the lamp used rapeseed oil, and the basement still smells of rapeseed oil even to these days. I told him that the basement smells of mineral oil. It turned out that there was a backup generator for the lamp in the basement. The mineral oil smell probably comes from the backup generator.
In December 1858, under the direction of Michael Faraday FRS – the scientific adviser to Trinity House, carbon arc lamps powered by magneto generator was installed in the Upper Lighthouse. Upper Lighthouse thus became the first electrified lighthouse in the world. The experiment continued until early 1860.
In 1872, the Upper Lighthouse received its own permanent electric installation. A power station was built mid-way between the two lighthouses.
The tour guide said that these days, you can still find pieces of carbon rod lying around the Upper Lighthouse. The archaeologists initially were not sure what they were. Apparently the previously lighthouse keepers used to throw the burnt carbon rods off the window, so they scattered around the lighthouse.
The first ship-to-shore radiotelegraph transmission was conducted by Marconi and his assistant on Christmas Eve 1898. Marconi sent his assistant to East Goodwin lightship. Nobody remembers what the said to each other.
The first international radiotelegraph transmission was conducted by Marconi and his assistant on 27-Mar-1899, between Wimereux France and the Upper Lighthouse. This time round, Marconi chose to go to Wimereux, and left his assistant at the Upper Lighthouse. The tour guide found this funny. The tour guide said Wimereux has good food and beautiful women. I think this shows that Marconi is a true scientist – he always picked the most arduous duty.
The first message radio message sent internationally was “Greetings from France to England through the ether.” 3) The tour guide mentioned that these days people do not use the word “ether” any more, people prefer the word “airwave”. I believe the word “ether” might have deeper meaning. Michelson-Morley Experiment was performed in 1887 4). Special Relativity was formulated by Einstein in 1905 5). Therefore, it might be plausible that Marconi believed light travelled through aether.
You literally can receive mobile phone signal from France on top of the white cliff. By that I meant your mobile phone can successfully perform a handshake with the cell tower in France. It is rather fitting that everyone can re-enact the amazing feat once performed by Marconi and his assistant, at the same site where it was once performed. Although for a lot of people, whether they want their phone to connect to a French cell tower is outside of their control. In other word, all these amazing re-enactments are performed involuntarily. Personally, I kind of want to visit Wimereux to have at look at what Marconi saw.
I find it amazing that mobile phone signal can travel more than 33km. Although perhaps it is not that surprising, as GSM has an absolute maximum range of 35km 6).
I do wonder what Marconi and his assistant would think of all these, if they were still alive today. It is this kind of story that inspires me to study science and engineering. I have to say I truly believe science and engineering makes the world magical.