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Updated: October 8, 2013 08:47 IST

170 years of a modern lighthouse

Sriram V.
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The Doric column, built at a cost of Rs. 60,000, was the second lighthouse of the city — Photo: K. Pichumani
The Hindu The Doric column, built at a cost of Rs. 60,000, was the second lighthouse of the city — Photo: K. Pichumani

A reader, P.B. Mani, sent me a news item recently which made me realise the second lighthouse of the city, the Doric column inside the High Court compound, would turn 170 years old tomorrow.

The first lighthouse was on the roof of the Exchange (now the museum) in the Fort. Known as the Madras Light, it was on wooden scaffolding and had a primitive apparatus — 12 wicks in common finger glasses with small country mirrors for reflectors. The height above sea level was 100 feet and it ought to have been visible 17 miles in the sea but that was rarely the case.

In 1834, vice-admiral Sir John Gore petitioned the East India Company about the necessity to have a more advanced lighthouse. Capt. T.J. Smith of the Corps of Engineers, then on home leave in England, was asked to suggest alternatives. Capt. Smith returned to Madras in 1837 with a new apparatus. But by then ships were anchoring off First Line Beach and not in front of the Fort.

The old lighthouse was therefore considered a location too far to the south and so it was decided the new one would be located on the Esplanade ‘between the Fort and the offices of Parry & Co.’ Work began on a granite column for it. Designed by Smith who had by then been promoted to Major, its stone was sourced from quarries in Pallavaram. Built on a base of 55-feet breadth, its column rose 84 feet with a tapering diameter — 16 feet at the base and 11 feet at the top.

The entire structure from base to tip had a height of 125 feet. The light was at 117 feet and was visible 20 miles into the sea. The cost came to Rs. 60,000.

The apparatus cost a further Rs. 15,000 and was of the most sophisticated kind for its times. Illumination was by 15 ‘argand lamps with parabolic reflectors, arranged in three tiers.’ A reciprocal type of light as against the earlier rotary model, it flashed its light, the ratio of bright to dark periods being 2:3, with each unit of time being 24 seconds.

On October 9, 1843, newspapers and periodicals carried the announcement that the new Madras Light was completed and it would be fully functional January 1, 1844. Major Smith was asked to remain in charge until a team was trained to take over the handling of the equipment. He handed over charge to the master attendant of the Madras Harbour on October 6, 1845.

The lighthouse had a full complement of staff comprising a superintendent, a deputy, a headman and six lascars. The monthly operational cost, inclusive of 208 measures of oil was Rs. 227 and 3 annas. It was to be the Madras Light until the 1890s, when the High Court’s tallest dome became the third lighthouse of Madras.

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