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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

TITANIC - Titanic’s Masthead Light



by Samuel Halpern
Copyright © 2007 Samuel Halpern, all rights reserved.
“I told them it was a very strange night; it was hard to define where the sky ended and the water commenced. There was what you call a soft horizon. I was sometimes mistaking the stars low down on the horizon for steamer’s lights.” – Captain Stanley Lord.
Lights on the horizon can be very deceiving at times. Is it a rising star, or is it the mast light of a steamer coming your way? Certainly if you wait long enough the light will be seen to move relative to the background stars, the telltale of an approaching vessel. But how far off can this vessel be for its mast light to be seen?

At the American Inquiry Titanic’s surviving Fourth Officer, Joseph Boxhall, had this to say:
“I thought she was about 5 miles, and I arrived at it in this way. The masthead lights of a steamer are required by the board of trade regulations to show for 5 miles, and the signals are required to show for 2 miles…I saw the side lights. Whatever ship she was had beautiful lights. I think we could see her lights more than the regulation distance, but I do not think we could see them 14 miles.”
The requirements concerning navigation lights in effect at the time specified:[1]
Art. 2. A steam vessel when under way shall carry –

(a.) On or in front of the foremast…a bright white light, so constructed as to show an unbroken light over an arc of the horizon of 20 points of the compass, so fixed as to throw the light 10 points on each side of the vessel…from right ahead to 2 points abaft the beam on either side, and of such a character as to be visible at a distance of at least 5 miles.

(b.) On the starboard side a green light so constructed as to show an unbroken light over an arc of the horizon of 10 points of the compass, so fixed as to throw the light from right ahead to 2 points abaft the beam on the starboard side, and of such a character as to be visible at a distance of at least 2 miles.

(c.) On the port side a red light so constructed as to show an unbroken light over an arc of the horizon of 10 points of the compass, so fixed as to throw the light from right ahead to 2 points abaft the beam on the port side, and of such a character as to be visible at a distance of at least 2 miles.

(d.) The said green and red side lights shall be fitted with inboard screens projecting at least 3 feet forward from the light, so as to prevent these lights from being seen across the bow.

(e.) A steam vessel when under way may carry an additional white light similar in construction to the light mentioned in subdivision (a). These two lights shall be so placed in line with the keel that one shall be at least 15 feet higher than the other, and in such a position with reference to each other that the lower light shall be forward of the upper one. The vertical distance between these two lights shall be less than the horizontal distance.

Art. 10. A vessel which is being overtaken by another shall show from her stern to such last-mentioned vessel a white light or a flare-up light. The white light required to be shown by this Article may be fixed and carried in a lantern, but in such case the lantern shall be so constructed, fitted, and screened that it shall throw an unbroken light over an arc of the horizon of 12 points of the compass, viz., for 6 points from right aft on each side of the vessel, so as to be visible at a distance of at least 1 mile. Such light shall be carried as nearly as practicable on the same level as the side lights.
Titanic's Running Lights
The 5 mile visibility requirement for the mast light was a minimum visibility distance. It was written to allow for oil lamps to be used. As Boxhall admitted, he believed he could see mast lights more than the regulation distance. But was he correct in believing that mast lights could not be seen at 14 miles?

The Titanic carried a single masthead light on her foremast about 145 feet above the water. To be seen at a distance the light had to be above the horizon of the observer. It also had to be bright enough to be seen and recognized for what it is. For example, consider a person standing on the deck of a typical tramp steamer with a height of eye above the water of 45 feet. If the Titanic’s masthead light were bright enough, that observer should notice the light coming over the horizon when it is 22 miles away, the maximum geographic range between light and observer. But would Titanic’s masthead light be noticed at that distance? Was it bright enough?

Denise & Titanic Masthead Light 2002According to author and TRMA trustee Bruce Beveridge, Titanic’s electric masthead light developed a total of 32 candlepower (CP) from 2 filaments of 16 CP each. One candlepower is equivalent to 12.57 lumens. Therefore, the filaments produced a total of 402 lumens of light intensity, about as much as a typical 40W incandescent bulb. Now it happens that a single candle seen at a distance of 1098 meters, or 3602 feet, will appear as bright as a 1st magnitude star.[2]Since brightness falls off as the square of the distance, something that is 32 times as bright as a single candle should appear just as bright when seen at a distance of 5.66 times further away. Therefore, without any lens amplification, a 32 CP light would appear as a 1stmagnitude star at a distance of about 20,400 feet on a clear dark night, a distance of 3.4 nautical miles.

But now we have to take into account the amplification of the masthead light lens; i.e., its light gathering power. The recovered masthead light from the Titanic is seen at right in a photograph from Denise Hunyadi taken in 2002 at the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland, OH. From what was described by Denise, Titanic’s masthead light lens is about 8 inches in height.

Using the principal of reciprocity, the gain of a lens in transmitting light is the same as the gain of a lens in receiving light. Normally the increase in light gathering power of one lens relative to another is the ratio of their areas. However, a masthead light lens only had amplification in the vertical plane which concentrates the light into a beam along an arc in the horizontal plane extending 112.5° to both sides of dead ahead. Since the amplification of the lens was only in the vertical plane, the amplification factor we have to use is the ratio of the height of the lens to the diameter of the lens opening of the human eye, which is about 0.32 inches on a very dark night. Therefore, the ratio we are interested in is 8/0.32 = 25. This concentration of light in the optics of Titanic’s masthead light lens is shown in the diagram below.
Titanic Mastlight Optics
Since brightness falls off as the square of the distance, something 25 times more bright can be seen 5 times further away. Therefore, if without the lens the light would appear as a 1st magnitude at 3.4 miles, with the lens it would be just as bright at 5 x 3.4 = 17 miles. When this light first comes over the visible horizon 22 miles away from someone on the bridge of a ship such as the Californian with height of eye 45 feet above the water, it would appear as a star of magnitude 1.56, about as bright as the bright star Castor in the constellation Gemini, unmistakable in its movement even if it were moving tangentially near the horizon. In just 12 minutes at 22 knots, Titanic’s masthead light would be seen to change its bearing by 1 full point on the compass. In 24 minutes its bearing would change a full 2 points on the compass. This is shown in the diagram below.
Running the Tangent
So the answer to our question of whether Titanic’s masthead light could be seen at a distance greater than 14 miles is absolutely yes! Not only would it appear as a bright star just above the horizon, but it would appear to move relatively rapidly against the much slower moving background stars.

I would like to thank Denise Hunyadi for the photographs of the recovered masthead light that were taken at The Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland, OH in 2002.

[1] From “The Regulations For Preventing Collisions At Sea,” as printed in Nicholls’s Seamanship and Viva Voce Guide, 4th Edition, London, August 1910.

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