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A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse

A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse

by Theresa Levitt

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How a scientific outsider came up with a revolutionary theory of light and saved untold numbers of lives.


How a scientific outsider came up with a revolutionary theory of light and saved untold numbers of lives.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
University of Mississippi history professor Levitt details the birth and golden age of a maritime icon in this fascinating book. The story starts in France in the early 1800s with physicist Augustin Fresnel, who countered the shortcomings of mirror-equipped lighthouses (half of the light is absorbed rather than reflected) by inventing an ingeniously designed lens that would bend the light from a source into a far-reaching beam. The first practical method for lighting the wine-dark sea was installed in 1823 on the coast of France at the elaborate Cordouan lighthouse—the “Versailles of the sea”—which had previously been lit by a simple pile of burning wood. Levitt then turns her attention stateside, where economic, social, and cultural barriers initially delayed the adoption of the technology. By 1859, however, nearly every American lighthouse sported a Fresnel lens. Shortly thereafter, during the Civil War, the enlightenment of the heretofore obscure coast would revolutionize naval warfare and harbor defense. Levitt’s study covers a short time span, but like a Fresnel lens to light, she bends plenty of material into this illuminating history of what one paper of the day poetically called “a manufacture from which emanate the useful and the beautiful as kindred and inseparable spirits.” 60 illus. & 6 maps. (June)
Henry Petroski - The Wall Street Journal
“Combin[es] matters of biography, science, engineering, technology, art, history, economics and politics seemingly effortlessly and definitely seamlessly. An excellent book and a joy to read.”
Kirkus Reviews
Homage to the man who turned feeble-and-far-between harbor lights into a global multitude of brilliant beacons. Levitt (History/Univ. of Mississippi) trains the spotlight on Augustin Fresnel (1788–1827), a French civil engineer whose early-19th-century optics experiments demonstrated that light traveled in waves, challenging leading scientists who defended particle theory. He went on to develop the Fresnel lens system, a series of triangular-shaped glass prisms in circular arrays, each prism angled to refract light into a single strong beam that projected to the horizon and beyond. Fresnel died of tuberculosis at age 39, but his legacy survived. Fresnel lenses would eventually replace the far-less-efficient lighthouses that shined light reflected from silver-mirrored parabola-shaped enclosures. However, Fresnel lenses were costly and required quality glass and precision grinding at a time in Paris when a horse powered the glassmaker's machines. Levitt's scrupulous scholarship and contextual setting serve readers well. She reminds us of how dangerous the sailor's life was and how low-intensity reflectors fell far short of the brightness and depth that ships required to prevent their foundering. The author also neatly contrasts Britain with France and America. Britain was ahead of France in Fresnel's time, already replacing horses with steam power and soon competing with the French in manufacturing Fresnel lenses. Meanwhile, America remained decades behind, thanks to a bureaucracy in which lighthouse management was in the hands of a treasury department auditor who would not use the Fresnel lenses. That changed in the 1840s with a new generation of progressives and the presidency of James Polk, ushering in massive lighthouse building with Fresnel installations--until the Civil War, when the Confederacy hid or destroyed many of them. Thanks to radio, radar and GPS, the "golden era" of lighthouses is over, but Levitt's century-and-a-half saga of an innovator whose ideas were at times fostered, at times thwarted, by politicians or leading scientists, is most welcome.
Eva Kahn - New York Times
“With his frantic pace of invention and early death, “he’s just like those romantic heroines of 1830s Paris burning themselves up through their passions,” said the historian Theresa Levitt, whose new book is A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse.”
Joanne Baker - Nature
“Fresnel indeed lit up his country and the world.”
Matthew Tiffany - Minneapolis Star Tribune
“[F]ascinating book…Levitt’s writing captures the mix of scientific rigor and cultural shifts in a way that mirrors the sea voyages of the day—a journey fraught with uncertainty, but in the end, guided to success by Fresnel’s lighthouse lenses.”
Joyce Appleby
“Theresa Levitt interweaves the personal triumph of the French physicist Augustin Fresnel with his pathbreaking work on the nature of light in her fascinating recounting of how the coasts of the world were made safe for the world’s seafaring vessels through a mix of genius, ingenuity, and perseverance. The story has a fascinating American coda.”
Jeffrey S. Gales
“It is rare that we see a lighthouse-related book, historical in nature, with the level of research that was put intoA Short Bright Flash. Theresa Levitt’s superior work has illustrated the genius and ongoing legacyof Augustin Fresnel, whose brilliancenot only saved lives but had an everlasting impact on the development of world trade, and whoseadvanced ideas are stillimplemented in today’s modern culture.”

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)

Meet the Author

Theresa Levitt held the McDonnell-Barksdale Chair of History of Science at the University of Mississippi and is associate professor of history there. A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she has a master’s degree in history from Iowa State University and a PhD from Harvard University. She was the recipient of a National Science Foundation grant and a Fulbright IIE Graduate Research Fellowship, among other honors. She is the author of numerous articles and papers on a variety of scientific subjects.

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