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All Wound Up

Twin Lights in 100 Artifacts #9- Clockwork Drive Restoration


Lighthouses in the twenty-first century are beacons of a bygone era, oftentimes lighting the night sky for private navigation. Their pleasant blinking lights are one of the many methods used to differentiate one lighthouse from its neighboring beacons. Lighting signatures, whether blinking or steady, would inform navigators where they were looking.


America's early lighthouses mostly carried fixed lights that shone out in all directions simultaneously. For critical locations, differentiating one lighthouse from another required a more complicated mechanism known as a clockwork drive. The Navesink Light Station employed a clockwork drive for a light signature that was unique to the landmark.

The image above shows a parabolic reflector array with a keeper winding the clockwork at the bottom of the picture.


Similar in operation to a grandfather clock, these clockwork drives converted the energy of a weight dropping within the tower to the spinning of a lighting fixture at the top. The earliest fixtures used here at the Navesink Light Station were mirrored parabolic reflectors paired with an oil lamp. These were arranged along a frame known as a chandelier and rotated by clockwork, producing a flash of light every thirty seconds as the lamps turned to face incoming ships. The machines were not always up to the task and difficult to maintain, as the lighthouse’s first keeper discovered:


“Mr. Joseph Doty, Keeper of the Light House at the High-lands of Neversink, came to this office … to report to me that the clock work of his Light-house was so much out of order that it was necessary to turn it by hand, that he and his family were worn out by the labor of attending it during the night” (Sam Swartwint, Collector, September 18, 1829).


Inspection by a reputable clockmaker from New York found the machine to be underpowered and a replacement was ordered. A new clockwork was furnished by Fish, Grinnell, and Company six months later, and it remained in use until 1841 when the lighthouse received a new clockwork to accompany the very first Fresnel Lenses in America. The third, and likely final, clockwork to be used here on site was used to spin the new Bi-valve lens installed in 1898. The clockwork had to be wound every 4 hours to bring the weight back to the top of the tower. Both 1898 clockwork drive and 2nd Order Bivalve lens are on display in the power house for visitors to see today.

Assistant Keeper Harry Dean rewinding the clockwork, 1937.


In an unlikely turn of events, a 4th clockwork drive was discovered in a local scrap yard in the 1980s. Purchased by the Twin Lights Historical Society, it was placed in storage awaiting a reason and funding to be restored. Happily, that day has arrived, with the clockwork having recently undergone a three month restoration process with Coast Guard certified Lampist Kurt Fosburg. The piece will be on display and available for visitors to try for themselves in the fall of 2022!

1st Order Clockwork Drive, 2021.



A newly restored clockwork drive, 2022.