Friday, June 24, 2016

Of coconut oil and lighthouses

Coconuts are everywhere in Chennai. If you look at the city skyline, you'll spot some coconut trees for sure. If you wander through the bazaars, you'll find coconuts being sold. And if you peep into kitchens you'll find coconuts in chutneys, sambars, and a zillion other dishes.

But I didn't know it was coconut oil that lit up the beacons of the old lighthouses of Chennai. Man! That must have taken a lot of coconuts! 

Until the 1700's, there were no lighthouses in Chennai. The fisherwomen lit bonfires on the beach, to guide their menfolk back home from their fishing expeditions (I bet they used coconut fronds for the bonfires).

As Chennai became a big trading centre under the East India Company, merchant ships began to feel the need for a 'proper' lighthouse.

The tallest building in Fort St George at the time was the steeple of St Mary's (which you can see in the photo below). But the chaplain didn't want a lighthouse in the church.

So a large oil-wick lantern was installed on the terrace of the officer's mess in 1796, and became the first lighthouse of Chennai.

Fort St George on the Coromandel Coast, Jan Van Ryne (1712–60)
The officer's mess building where the lighthouse was installed, is now the Fort Museum, and you can visit it if you go to Fort St George. The building is not very tall; so Chennai's first lighthouse ended up being only 99 feet above sea level (see photo). 

The old officers mess, which later became the museum
Like I said, the lighthouse used coconut oil for fuel. I was surprised to learn that the light from 12 coconut oil lamps could be seen even 25 miles from the shore.  

It turns out that coconut oil gives a clear white flame. Country mirrors were used as reflectors to intensify the light for signalling ships.

This coconut-fuelled lighthouse continued to function for nearly 50 years. What a lot of coconut oil they must have used up !! :) :) 

Eventually in 1841, a new lighthouse location came up, at what is now the High Court. This lighthouse used an Argand lamp, which was basically a better designed oil-lamp where with just one wick you could get the amount of light of 7 candles. Parabolic reflectors behind the lamp would further boost and concentrate the output.

The Argand lamp provided a smokeless, brighter flame; but its oil consumption was greater. Still more coconut oil :)

Here is a photo of the second lighthouse, which used the Argand lamp.  This lighthouse is now inside the High Court premises and is a protected monument.
Second Lighthouse in Madras, Frederick Fiebig c.1851
The second lighthouse continued to be used for almost 50 years, until 1894, when a third lighthouse was built. The tallest dome of the High Court was used as the third lighthouse, which you can see in this photo:
By this time, electricity had still not arrived. The third lighthouse used kerosene, and thus ended a century of coconut oil lighthouses :)

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