Thursday, August 19, 2021

Before Electric Light: Ships’ Lanterns in the HRNM Collection, Part 2

By William Clarkson
HRNM Educator

Front view of Signal Lantern from HMAS Australia, manufactured in 1912 (William Clarkson)
Communicating at sea can be difficult in the best conditions, but what did Sailors do before the integration of electricity and radio into a ship’s infrastructure? Crews utilized many methods of passing messages, one of which was oil burning signal lanterns. The lantern pictured above is the second from the museum’s collection to be featured in our look into lighting before electricity and is used for signaling other ships and observers. Communicating with light sources continues today with electric signal lamps, but the fundamentals of their use began with fuel-burning lanterns.
Rear view of Signal Lantern from HMAS Australia, showing the adjustment port and key-tool, as well as instruction panel (William Clarkson)
Produced in Birmingham, England by Griffiths and Brown Ltd in 1912, this copper and brass lantern was hand made for use by the Australian Navy. Standing about 20.5” inches tall and approximately 10” in diameter, a series of fins that acts as a shutter sits behind the thick glass lens. The shutter is attached to an exterior flipper that when toggled produces short or long flashes of light, or visible Morse code. The lantern opens via a sliding door on the rear and reveals a removable fuel tank and burner which, when removed, provides access to the shutter and lens. The rear of the lantern also includes a keyhole, allowing for regulation of the flame inside. The lantern is affixed with a stamped plate instructing, “Suspend lantern when in use, if vessel is rolling through a total arc of more than 20 degrees,” a reminder of the realities and dangers of seafaring.
Letter certifying this lantern was taken from HMAS Australia (William Clarkson)
HRNM’s collection also includes a letter, dated 11 November 1942, certifying that this lantern was retrieved from His Majesty’s Australian Ship Australia, prior to its scuttling in 1924. The letter is signed by a Mr. Brewster of the Royal Australian Naval Store Depot at Darling Island, Sydney. In the letter, Mr. Brewster makes a point of mentioning that HMAS Australia was scuttled in accordance with the Washington Disarmament Agreement of 1922-23, an agreement to prevent a naval arms race after the First World War. He states at the close of his letter, “The Governments of the World, at that time, thought that this procedure was in the Cause of Peace. DIIS ALITER VISUM!! (The Gods thought otherwise).” The letter’s envelope, also in our collection, is printed with the words “Hand Message,” and “On His Majesty’s Service,” providing a nice reminder that the message inside is an official missive of a foreign government.
Envelope from the lantern's donation (William Clarkson)
This lantern saw use aboard HMAS Australia, an Indefatigable-class battlecruiser commissioned in 1913. It served as the Australian Navy’s first flagship. HMAS Australia saw action during the First World War, in both the Pacific and Atlantic, but was absent from the Battle of Jutland, as the ship was in port undergoing repair after a collision with HMAS New Zealand. After the end of the war, HMAS Australia returned to its namesake nation and was scuttled in 1924 off Sydney Heads, near Sydney, Australia.
HMAS Australia, undated (Australian Navy)
Even with the advent of new technologies at the turn of the 20th century, older and tested methods, like oil-burning signal lanterns, remained in use throughout navies across the globe for years to come. Such devices were kept and maintained as redundancies in case of equipment failure, ensuring that communications and operations could continue. Artifacts like this lantern serve as a window into bygone eras, as well as reminders that the skills honed by past Sailors are still with us, in many cases with few, if any, changes.

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