19th Century Lightships: What was their Light Source?

A lightvessel, or lightship, is a ship that acts as a lighthouse. They are used in waters that are too deep or otherwise unsuitable for lighthouse construction. Although some records exist of fire beacons being placed on ships in Roman times, the first modern lightvessel was off the Nore sandbank at the mouth of the River Thames in England, placed there by its inventor Robert Hamblin in 1734. The type has become largely obsolete; lighthouses replaced some stations as the construction techniques for lighthouses advanced, while large, automated buoys replaced others.
The first true American lightship was placed off the coast of New Jersey to mark the entrance to New York Bay. The wooden hull ship cost $17,700 to build and was 90 feet long. Placed off Sandy Hook, it was known as the Sandy Hook Lightship and was in service between 1823 and 1829. From 1829 thru 1839 there was no lightship to mark this entrance. Prior to the Sandy Hook Lightship's replacement by a Texas tower, eight lightships marked this spot. At the turn of the 20th Century, a deeper and wider channel into New York Harbor was being dredged. The name of the Sandy Hook Lightship was changed to the Ambrose Channel Lightship with the opening of the new channel in 1908.
There obviously were other locations and companies providing lightvessel services. Below is a small compilation of various type images pertaining to lightships.



Sandy Hook Lightship.jpg


Sandy Hook Lightship - 2.jpg


Sandy Hook Lightship - 3.jpg

1890 - Source


1891 - Source


1898 - Source
KD Note: Globe looking spheres on the ships below, look very similar to the ones on this 1709 Jesuit Flying Ship.

KD: I have one questions pertaining to the above ships.
  1. What was the light source used? We can see metal mesh looking balls up on top of the masts. How did they get those to emit light?
    • Especially in 1820s...
St Elmo's Fire. I have never observed it myself as I have never been on a boat very often. I read it can be observed around the hull of a boat as the solid boat moves through water. Glowing like the auroras. Later I read you can observe the same aurora like glow as the masts of the boat move through the air. Sorry no presentations to link here, it's just from my memory of all the bits I have read over the years.
A more prosaic explanation.
Her design description is as follows: "Wood framed & planked; white oak fastened with 5/8" square iron spikes; 2 masts, daymark on fore; spencer mast aft of main for riding sail; stack on deckhouse amidships. She was illuminated by a cluster of 3 oil-burning lens lanterns hoisted to each masthead. Fog Signal: 6" steam whistle, hand operated bell. The vessels maximum speed was 8 knots." Over the years, constructional defects were corrected and fog and submarine bells added.

The crew had their own duties. The two lamp-trimmers would find plenty of work in filling, trimming and cleaning the lamps of the lantern, especially as they combine with these duties that of cooking for the other men.

At times during the winter, when the coasts were enveloped in fog, the foghorn had to be sounded continuously night and day, at intervals of two minutes, often for days at a time. The engines that drove the foghorn and the clockwork machinery that causes the light to revolve were under the care of the signal-drivers. Every half hour the light revolving machinery was wound and once every two minutes, during a fog, the warning notes that could be heard or several miles were sent out.

The ball shaped cages are radio antennas.
Last edited:
I’m not sure I’m buying this explanation being the original design. A similar contraption can be seen on this image, when there clearly was not supposed to be any antennas, at least officially.

I could see it being adopted it in this manner.

We have plenty of highly questionable official explanations. Take these horsecars for example.

I could see it being adopted it in this manner.
Look closely at those balls in the airship they are Sphere De Copernic though not convinced they were there in the original. The cages on the lightships are just cages.



Everything is questionable not least being the dating of 'when'.
To me it looks very much like this.


I agree, the majority do look like simple cages. But if the dating is correct, for them to be radio antennas... what’s the official date of the wireless radio getting invented?

I’m not sure if this is the same thing, but it sure does look similar to those caged balls. The image is dated with 1878.


The caged balls look to me to be more like ball shaped birdcages with 'north to south' ribs so too speak. The lights on the late 1800's ships appear to have been universally oil powered lamps. Whale oil would be my guess for the fuel. Oil lamps must have their wicks trimmed or they go dull and smoke readily hence the need for an onboard crew. They also need refilling and relighting/extinguishing.
It seems not all of them had the ball shaped cages so they were not original equipment it seems for the earliest, in official age terms at least, lightships.

This for example shows one without a wireless and just lights on its masts. This is the sort of document I trust more than others quite frankly apart from personal journals as they are much harder to fake convincingly, to my eyes at least.
5363. (newspaper) The Fire Island Lightship Which Succeeds the Lighthouse. New York Herald. September 5, 1897. Wonderful illustrated article describes the new Lightship No. 68, newly placed on the Fire Island station. Great descriptions of the vessel and life on board as well as illustrations of the vessel, Captain’s cabin, Main Saloon (dining room), and more. Most interesting with rare information. Page has been encased in plastic for protection.

Lots of interesting images and info on that sites page.


Just don't mention the monorail.

Edit to add
The full specifications of that specific lightship which whose light was powered by eight oil lamps!

-1901: Oct Marconi wireless telegraph equipment installed for evaluation.
I will read that when I get to a computer screen.

Here is an 1831 model of a buoy. Sounds like it was invented by some Jacobus Boelen.

This model has a description:
  • Model of a Buoy, Polychromed, closed truss model of a buoy or barrel boat that simultaneously serves as a beacon and shelter for shipwrecked. It is a very plump boat with a keel, the fore ship is distinguished from the aft ship, a bump surrounds the whole. A convex roof has been installed over the deck, which has been omitted on one side, there is a manhole in the deck, which provides access to the hold. In the middle there is a mast, strung with chainstays and equipped with a triangular screen of trellis on both sides. On top of a round ball of wickerwork. 1:10 scale., Jacobus Boelen

If this buoy boat was autonomous, they would have had to visit it at least once a day to refill and reignite the oil lamp. Sounds pretty cumbersome.
Intriguing as I too have been looking at buoys, are you channelling me?
The description is 'wickerwork'. If that is the case my guess is the thing hides a bell that clangs with the motion of the waves not a light and certainly not an oil lamp. The covered deck suggests it was at least to some degree self righting.
Lol, I’m incapable of channeling.

I attributed the wickerwork part to the material used to produce this model. If that’s the same ball we see on the older ships, it was probably made of metal.

They had a whole book on the history of Lightships and Lighthouses published in 1870. The book has (p. 185) tons of interesting info, including ship crews, food and oil supplies, schedule, etc.


As you can see, it does not explain what the balls were for, but in the below excerpt they explain how light ops were arranged.


Still think that there is something we do not understand about these lightships.
  • How do they climb to the top two cage balls if there were oil lamps to ignite in there?
    • I do not think that these balls were containers for the "conspicuously positioned" oil lamps.
  • And why do they appear empty if there were oil lamps inside?

Source + Source

If the light was positioned inside this mid-mast cabin, we could plausibly explain it with oil lamps. But not all the ships have this mast cabin.



I don't know, may be the above-mentioned Elmo's fire had something to do with this. If atmospheric conditions changed, these balls could have become obsolete. Just guessing here...
  • 19th century illustration of the phenomenon known as St. Elmo's Fire, from "Naturwunder Im Reiche der Luft" by Dr. W.F.M. Zimmerman, ca. 1860.
  • First identified as an electrical phenomenon by Benjamin Franklin in 1749, St. Elmo's fire is a bluish-white plasma caused by the release of electrons in a strong electric field (200 or more volts per cm); the electrons have enough energy to ionize atoms in the air and cause them to glow. The phenomenon appears near pointed objects because electrical fields generated by charged surfaces are strongest where curves are sharpest. It is named after St. Elmo, the patron saint of mariners, as the phenomenon was often observed by sailors during thunderstorms at sea.
  • Source
st elmo2.jpg
If you look at the rigging of these ships it goes as far as the lantern house structures. The ball cages are not there in the officially dated older engravings.

And you ya bugger. You inadvertently present rabbit holes I find intriguing. That Dutch sea captain who is accredited with designing that buoy. what a very interesting character. Not for this article really but he was extremely well travelled and the places he went are of immense interest in regards that buoy design. I may get to doing a post on him if I can muster the interest beyond reading about him.

Back to those lightships. They were parked in bad weather seas for obvious reasons and reading through a few accounts and histories they seemed to all take a hammering with more than a dew killing their crews. This would seem to fly in the face of the oil lamp usage except for the fact they were manned vessels which supports the oil lamp usage.
The balls seem to have appeared when the words Marconi Wireless appeared. The aerial seems to have been not just the ball cages but a length of wire strung between them. I am wondering if the ball cages were in fact some sort of signal filter or amplifier or some such or they acted as the best way to keep the wire secured between the masts without damaging it.
I'm coming to the idea that we are actually looking at very different types of ball though getting a handle on them is not easy. I found this book which illustrates different types of fuel for the light source which I must confess I'd never heard of but then again being around in the electro techno age does rather blind one somewhat.
Consequently, to-day the automatic floating lighthouse is one of the handiest, most efficient and reliable devices for assisting navigation that the lighthouse engineer has at his command.

The lights assume different forms, this factor being influenced by position, specific duty, and local conditions. Similarly, the character of the illuminant employed also varies, acetylene, compressed oil-gas, petroleum, and electricity, being utilized, according to circumstances. On the whole, however, acetylene gas appears to be the most favoured illuminating medium, inasmuch as the preparation of the carbide of calcium has undergone such marked improvement.
From further into the chapter.
Yet dissolved acetylene, though completely successful, possessed one drawback. It was expensive as compared with oil-gas. Accordingly, there was great scope for a means of economizing the consumption of the fuel without interfering with its lighting value and efficiency. At the same time a superior flashing system was desired. The methods which were in vogue to this end were satisfactory so far as they went, but they involved a considerable useless consumption of gas.

This is where Mr. Gustaf Dalén completed one of his greatest achievements. He perfected a flashing apparatus wherein the gas passes to the burner in intermittent puffs, to be ignited by a small invisible pilot light. The device was tested and proved so successful that it was adopted throughout the service. In Swedish waters to-day there are 127 aids to navigation operating upon this system, of which five are lightships. The success of the invention in the land of its origin attracted other nations to its possibilities. At the present moment over 700 lights, scattered throughout the world, are working upon this principle.
The book is dated 1913.

An explanation for the balls on the masts that makes sense to me.
Daymarks – Daymarks were particularly important form early years until the 1920’s, permitting the lightship to stand out in a crowd, and to be set apart from other vessels or terrain features in the vicinity. Most of the lightship daymarks were ball shaped – large metal hoops, and circular or oval lattice structures to reduce wind resistance. These were mounted near one or both of the mastheads, and were painted a distinctive color. Occasionally the masthead daymarks were supplemented with an elliptical structure on the jackstay between the masts. When acetylene and electrical lens lanterns came into common use, daymarks as such were abandoned, with the circular lantern galleries providing the same visual recognition.
Last edited:
Daymarks were particularly important form early years until the 1920’s, permitting the lightship to stand out in a crowd, and to be set apart from other vessels or terrain features in the vicinity.
Wondering why something like this could be important in daylight. It's not like they the ship is invisible without this ball.
Related to the ring glowing buoy- I found a video of someone recreating this glowing Mercury in a vacuum tube! He mentions at around 6:50 that if you shake the mercury up, the tube will start to glow. Idk thought I’d share if it can lead anybody anywhere about the globes.

Well I now know too much about another subject than is good for me.
Daymarkers are a real bona fide thing that were and still are used to identify hazards to shipping. Me being a tad stupid walk past a dozen of the things quite frequently but never knew their generic name. Most of them where I walk mark the hazards of shallow water and gas pipelines. They are big buggers but they have to be as they are not easy to see at sea.

The daymarkers predate the lightships. Prior to the lightships actually coming into being there were ships or more often boats anchored near hidden hazards. Often time these hidden hazards were near shipping lanes as they are called or near busy harbours so to get the boats to avoid them they were marked with boats which all bore foreshortened masts and to make them stand out even more they put large wire balls atop the masts.
Sometime two often four were up there and despite my searching I have come across no other masted ships or boats which bear these singular markers.
Many buoys bear them and these days it is often a buoy that has taken the place of the ship/boat.

The design is to prevent the wind from swinging them about which seems sensible to me as were they to come down then there is no point to them.
Seems as with all human endeavours there are many solutions put forwards to man made problems most of which do not last or even get beyond the design or prototype stage but daymarkers are one that endures most likely because they work and are recognisable in any language as something to be avoided.

Links for anyone interested.
Greetings all ! While most of the world's population has too much time on their hands, that does not describe my life. Not a lot of time to ponder mysteries. I have been thinking that maybe those purpose built light ships had a copper lined hull. Expensive but not unheard of. I am aware that modern boat hulls are painted with a copper based paint to keep barnacles and other growth off the hull. These ships were placed and anchored in one desired spot for a long time and would be prone to having barnacle growth on the hulls.

If the hull below water was lined with copper plating, it would surely cause some type of reaction, ( electrolysis ) with the ions dissolved in the salt water. The iron anchor and iron chain would ground the ship and attract it's own charge of ions. The illustrations you have shown suggest a bit of iron work on the masts, ( not including the iron spheres ). I was going to make a simple drawing of this and show it to electrical engineering friends I know to get their opinion on the electrical generating capabilities. I was thinking along the lines of the Baghdad battery - two metals in an acid solution.
I then looked up salt water batteries to see if they even existed and lucked out. Who makes salt water batteries?
In 2008 Carnegie Mellon professor Jay Whitacre founded Aquion Energy and received venture funding from Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers. He won the 2015 Lemelson–MIT Prize, an award worth $500,000, for inventing the company's salt water battery.
Search for: Who makes salt water batteries?

How many volts does a saltwater battery produce?
  • 2.6 volts
Hardly any unbound water molecules are present. The researchers discovered that this saline solution displays an electrochemical stability of up to 2.6 volts –nearly twice as much as other aqueous electrolytes. The discovery could be the key to inexpensive, safe battery cells.Feb 22, 2018
Search for: How many volts does a saltwater battery produce?

Does salt water produce electricity?
When you put salt in water, the water molecules pull the sodium and chlorine ions apart so they are floating freely. These ions are what carry electricity through water with an electric current. In short, salt water can help to produce electricity.
Search for: Does salt water produce electricity?

Sorry for all the wasted space, I could not get my copy-pastes to be more efficient. Still more research to be done but at least there has been some work in modern times into looking at harvesting / storing electricity from salt water. Our wiser elders knew how to coax and enhance St. Elmo's Fire ?

Tesla was experimenting with ways to extract electricity out of the atmosphere at his lab in Colorado Springs. They wouldn't have named the local Colorado Springs if there was not a spring of water running through the basalt rocks. I'll look in my archives for pictures of Tesla planting light bulbs in the ground and getting them to light up. I'm not sure if I will be able to find the article but I recall reading that the Wardencliffe tower Tesla built, also went into the ground to tap into underground water.

I haven't done it but I have seen many pictures of people taking a fluorescent tube and standing under high tension wires and getting the tube to light up.

More research... put it over there with the other research !
Related to the ring glowing buoy- I found a video of someone recreating this glowing Mercury in a vacuum tube! He mentions at around 6:50 that if you shake the mercury up, the tube will start to glow. Idk thought I’d share if it can lead anybody anywhere about the globes.

This is very interesting. I love to read old (Fiction) books and Often a character will refer to the blue/green/violet light from the light fixtures in their environment. This makes me wonder if that’s what it looked like!
Last edited:

Similar articles