From earliest times the beacon-fire has sent forth messages from hilltops or across inaccessible places. In this country, when the Indian was monarch of the vast areas of forest and prairie, he spread news broadcast to roving tribesmen by means of the signal-fire, and he flashed his code by covering and uncovering it. Castaways, whether in fiction or in reality, instinctively turn to the beacon-fire as a mode of attracting a passing ship.
On every hand throughout the ages this simple means of communication has been employed; therefore, it is not surprising that mankind has applied his ingenuity to the perfection of signaling by means of light, which has its own peculiar fields and advantages. Of course, wireless telephony and telegraphy will replace light-signaling to some extent, but there are many fields in which the last-named is still supreme. In fact, during the recent war much use was made of light in this manner and devices were developed despite the many other available means of signaling. One of the chief advantages of light as a signal is that it is so easily controlled and directed in a straight line. Wireless waves, for example, are radiated broadcast to be intercepted by the enemy.
The beginning of light-signaling is hidden in the obscurity of the past. Of course, the most primitive light-signals were wood fires, but it is likely that man early utilized the mirror to reflect the sun’s image and thus laid the foundation of the modern heliograph.
The Book of Job, which is probably one of the oldest writings available, mentions molten mirrors. The Egyptians in the time of Moses used mirrors of polished brass. Euclid in the third century before the Christian era is said to have written a treatise in which he discussed the reflection of light by concave mirrors. John , Archbishop of Canterbury in the thirteenth century, described mirrors of polished steel and of glass backed with lead. Mirrors of glass coated with an of tin and mercury were made by the Venetians in the sixteenth century. Huygens in the seventeenth century studied the laws of refraction and reflection and devised optical apparatus for various purposes. However, it was not until the eighteenth century that any noteworthy attempts were made to control artificial light for practical purposes. Dollond in 1757 was the first to make achromatic lenses by using combinations of different glasses. Lavoisier in 1774 made a lens about four feet in diameter by constructing a cell of two concave glasses and filling it with water and other liquids. It is said that he ignited wood and melted metals by concentrating the sun’s image upon them by means of this lens. About that time Buffon made a built-up parabolic mirror by means of several hundred small plane mirrors set at the proper angles. With this he set fire to wood at a distance of more than two hundred feet by concentrating the sun’s rays. He is said also to have made a lens from a solid piece of glass by grinding it in concentric steps similar to the designs worked out by Fresnel seventy years later. These are examples of the early work which laid the foundation for the highly perfected control of light of the present time.
While engaged in the survey of Ireland, Thomas Drummond in 1826 devised apparatus for signaling many miles, thus facilitating triangulation. Distances as great as eighty miles were encountered and it appeared desirable to have some method for seeing a point at these great distances. Gauss in 1822 used the reflection of the sun’s image from a plane mirror and Drummond also tried this means. The latter was successful in signaling 45 miles to a station which because of haze could not be seen, or even the hill upon which it rested. Having demonstrated the feasibility of the plan, he set about making a device which would include a powerful artificial light in order to be independent of the sun. In earlier geodetic surveys Argand lamps had been employed with parabolic reflectors and with convex lenses, but apparently these did not have a sufficient range. Fresnel and Arago constructed a lens consisting of a series of concentric rings which were cemented together, and on placing this before an Argand lamp possessing four concentric wicks, they obtained a light which was observed at forty-eight miles.
Despite these successes, Drummond believed the parabolic mirror and a more powerful light-source afforded the best combination for a signal-light. In searching for a brilliant light-source he experimented with phosphorus burning in oxygen and with various pyrotechnical preparations. However, flames were unsteady and generally unsuitable. He then turned in the direction which led to his development of the lime-light. In his first apparatus he used a small sphere of lime in an alcohol flame and directed a jet of oxygen through the flame upon the lime. He thereby obtained, according to his own description in 1826,
a light so intense that when placed in the focus of a reflector the eye could with difficulty support its splendor, even at a distance of forty feet, the contour being lost in the brilliancy of the radiation.
He then continued to experiment with various oxides, including zirconia, magnesia, and lime from chalk and marble. This was the advent of the lime-light, which should bear Drummond’s name because it was one of the greatest steps in the evolution of artificial light.