Let There Be Light . . .

Records of a Family of Engineers, Robert Louis StevensonOn 1February 1811, the Bell Rock Lighthouse was illuminated for the first time. The work of acclaimed engineer Robert Stevenson, it was the second revolving light to be erected in Scotland, the first being at Start Point.

Each revolution took eight minutes, and the light alternated between white and red. A fog bell was also included in the mechanism.

The Inchcape Rock, on which it stands, was the scene of many wrecks on the east coast of Scotland, because it was only at low tide that it was visible, but Stevenson’s original proposal for a lighthouse, in 1799, was rejected on the grounds of cost and the radical nature of his design. Robert Southey’s historical ballad of 1802 may have kept the problem in the public eye, but it was the loss of HMS York and all her crew of 491 men and boys in 1804 that led to a reconsideration of the project, and work began in 1807. It took three years to complete the platform and lighthouse, which Stevenson documented in his own account in 1824, which was quoted at length by his grandson, Robert Louis Stevenson, in his Records of a Family of Engineers.

The project has been called one of the seven wonders of the industrial world. It was the tallest off-shore lighthouse yet built (35.3 m), becoming a tourist attraction even before its completion. The difficulties of the site, under water for 20 hours a day, meant that, even with a workforce of sixty, progress in building up the platform for the structure was slow, and the lighthouse ended up costing 50% above the estimated £42,000 (about £3m today). Despite the difficulties involved in moving over 2,500 granite blocks to an underwater site twelve miles offshore, the structure has never needed replacement or alteration, although the original lights were replaced in 1843, and the Bell Rock was automated in 1988.

Robert Stevenson had been intended for the ministry by his widowed mother, but when he was a teenager she married the first engineer to the Northern Lighthouse Board, Thomas Smith, and this shaped his future destiny. Robert succeeded his stepfather in this post, serving for fifty years. The Stevenson family kept up a long tradition as marine engineers. Robert’s sons Thomas, Alan and David, and some of their children, were all well known as experts in the field. Thomas, the father of novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, had an international renown, and acted as a consultant on lighthouses in India, China, Japan, New Zealand and Canada. His books, Lighthouse Construction and Illumination and The Design and Construction of Harbours became standard textbooks.

Further technical details of the Bell Rock Lighthouse can be found at www.bellrock.org.uk


This entry was posted in History, The Naval Chronicle, Travel and Exploration and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Let There Be Light . . .

  1. Pingback: The House of Glass | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

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