Thursday, August 12, 2021

Before Electric Light: Ships’ Lanterns in the HRNM Collection, Part 1

By William Clarkson
HRNM Educator

Front view of Masthead or ‘Steaming’ Lantern now in HRNM’s collection (William Clarkson)
Lanterns have been in use on ships for thousands of years, both for providing vision, and preventing collisions at sea. Today, electric lights fill this roll, and are employed in standard practice with strict protocols. Before the transition to electricity, lanterns came in many sizes shapes and styles, and used many fuel sources, including whale oil and later, kerosene. In an oil-burning lantern, a wick is partially suspended into the fuel tank, and the exposed portion of the wick is lit. The flame causes the oil to be carried up through the saturated wick, keeping it burning without destroying the wick’s material. The masthead, or ‘steaming’ lantern, pictured above and below, is part of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum's collection and is a fine example of this fuel-based lighting.

Rear view of lantern. Notice the access door at lower right, allowing for adjustment of the flame and brightness.
(William Clarkson)
Produced in 1914/15 by the Telford Grier and Mackay Company in Glasgow, Scotland, this lantern is hand made with copper, brass, and a glass lens. It measures 12 inches in diameter and 22 inches tall, weighing approximately 35 pounds. The exhaust cylinder atop the lantern is stamped “1914,” while the sliding back plate is stamped “1915,” along with the serial number C1154. Metal rings are attached to the side of the lantern to secure it to the foremast during ship operations. It is important to note that a lantern like this one is not used to provide visibility for Sailors on the ship; rather, it is meant to help other vessels identify the ship’s presence and heading in low visibility conditions. A masthead lantern could be placed anywhere along the fore and aft centerline of larger vessels, provided it shows unbroken light and is visible in an arc from right ahead, as well as at an angle from either side of the ship.
Diagram of Queen Elizabeth-class ships, showing the position of a masthead lantern at the foremast and orientation of visibility off the port and starboard from ahead (Wikipedia)

Packing note from 1945, showing provenance for this lantern as being from the HMS Queen Elizabeth (William Clarkson)
Accompanying this lantern is a packing note dated December 18th, 1945, identifying it as a ‘steaming’ lantern from His Majesty’s Ship Queen Elizabeth, a ‘Fast Battleship’ in the Royal Navy. It certifies that the lantern was transferred in one case (with measurements), from an officer of the British Admiralty Delegation in Washington DC, where it likely ended up after removal from HMS Queen Elizabeth, during the ship’s repair and upgrade at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard between 1942-1943.
HMS Queen Elizabeth as seen June 1943 after repair and overhaul at the Norfolk Navy Shipyard (Naval History and Heritage Command)
Completed in 1915, HMS Queen Elizabeth saw action in the Dardanelles during the Gallipoli Campaign of the First World War, providing shore bombardment during an attempt to force the straits. From there it joined the Grand Fleet in the Atlantic, but was absent from the battle of Jutland while undergoing minor repairs. HMS Queen Elizabeth served as the Atlantic Fleet’s flagship until 1924. After a refit, HMS Queen Elizabeth joined the Mediterranean fleet in 1941, where it was mined by Italian forces in December, off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt. From here Queen Elizabeth was transported to Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Virginia, for a year and a half of repairs. During this time, the ship was upgraded to electric lighting systems, and the lantern now in HRNM’s collection was removed. After returning to service in the Pacific until the end of World War Two, HMS Queen Elizabeth was sold for scrap in 1948.

While HMS Queen Elizabeth was not part of the United States Navy, the lantern now in HRNM’s collection gives us a glimpse at what contemporary U.S. vessels might have used. It also provides us with the opportunity to admire a bit of skilled handcraft in an age of automated production. Lastly, it allows us to connect with navies and Sailors around the globe, whose experiences at sea are often universal.

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