Making Improvements to BuoysUnder the Lighthouse Board, buoyage in the United States steadily improved. Spars and cask buoys gave way to can and nun shaped riveted iron buoys. These buoys were set according to the Lateral System: red nuns to the starboard of channels as observed by ships returning to port, and black can buoys to the port. The board also standardized sizes to maximize their visibility.
Inventor Joseph HenryOne of America's top scientists served on the Lighthouse Board, Joseph Henry, founder of the Smithsonian Institution, experimented with the effects of sound and light over water. Henry studied improvements in buoy designs such as the Courtenay's Buoy, a whistle buoy invented in 1875 by John Courtenay. It was in the careful analysis and adoption of buoy designs that the Lighthouse Board invented a more modern buoy system.
Buoy ClassesBy 1852, with buoy standardization, the Lighthouse Board categorized these buoy types into three sizes:
- first-class buoys served primarily at the entrances to harbors and wherever large, highly visible buoys were needed.
- Second-class buoys, which were smaller, marked rivers and secondary harbor approaches.
- Third-class buoys, the smallest class, marked areas where larger, deeper-draft vessels could not go.
Specialized BuoysIn 1851, Charles Babbage, of London, published a paper about putting lights on buoys, that inspired inventors to patent designs that employed oil-vapor lamps, similar to those used in lighthouses at the time, however, the conditions a buoy was subjected to was too rough for gas lighting. As a result one early inventor patented an electric buoy with a motion sensor which, upon detecting a ship passing close by, would sound an alarm, send up a rocket flare and light its lamp.
Electrically Lit BuoysThe first electrically lit buoy tested by the board was a simple spar with a lantern housing and light on top. Deployed in Gedney's Channel, New York harbor, in 1888, a series of these buoys was lit by a cable running to a generator on Sandy Hook, N.J. These were removed in 1903.
Gas BuoysRichard and Julius Pintsch and John Foster independently developed and tested compressed gas buoys as early as 1883. The Foster buoy resembled John Courtenay's buoy in shape, but contained acetylene gas which lit a lantern on top. Problems with this buoy included its tendency to roll down into a swell in rough seas and extinguish itself.
The Pintsch gas buoys were the most successful of the compressed-gas lighted buoys. Originally patented in Germany, these buoys were sold to the Lighthouse Service in the early 20th century through the Safety Car and Electric Company of New York. They had removable 6 to 8 foot-long cylindrical containers which held six to 12 months' of fuel and were relatively easy to tender.
Audible Signal BuoysBrown's Bell Buoy was invented by a Revenue Marine captain in the 1850s. This relatively simple buoy had a base supporting a superstructure upon which hung a bell with four clappers that struck as the buoy rolled in the sea. From this simple design a myriad of whistle, bell and foghorn buoys developed.
John Courtenay's buoy was very successful commercially even without being patented. It was adopted by the Lighthouse Board after extensive experiments under Joseph Henry. Courtenay developed this buoy while working for the British East India Company.
The Courtenay's Buoy was based on the physics of air escaping under pressure from a tube through a whistle. Joseph Henry believed it represented a major technological advance in navigational aids. After testing, the Lighthouse Board accepted Courtenay's Buoy as their main supply.
Buoy TendersThe Lighthouse Board felt that their major harbors were not marked and lit efficiently enough to ensure the safe passage of the newer and faster steam vessels. The Lighthouse Board also recognized that larger buoys required larger, more maneuverable tenders. The small boats used by earlier contractors could not cope with the changes in design and larger sizes of buoys. More accurate placement was critical.
USLHS ShubrickThe first steam tender, built by the Lighthouse Board, was the USLHS Shubrick. Completed in 1857 at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, the new tender served on the Pacific Coast. The success of the Shubrick convinced the board to purchase other steam vessels.
The board also took responsibility for the placement of buoys. Previously, contractors marked obstructions, wrecks, shoals and sides of channels according to their own plans or preferences.