The Public Was Slow To Accept Electric Lights in Ships.

November 19, 2015

Unless you are a maritime scholar, the average person probably hasn’t thought much about the array of lights needed for a ship. The most common of these lights are the masthead, navigational, signal and deck lights. Depending on the size of the ship the numbers of lights could easily be in the hundreds. Over the centuries vessels navigated the seas at night with little more than oil lanterns, candles, and hope. 

With the birth of electricity, maritime engineers quickly began planning its use for ship lights. In 1880 the British warship Inflexible was the first ship to have electric cable installed. Although its’ initial power was weak, less than 100 kilowatt, the ships general illumination was considerably better than the old oil lanterns. There existed from the beginning grave doubts about electricity’s reliability. Some critics claimed that a ships compass could become corrupted by the magnetic field of electric current and, of course, a ship off course meant certain destruction. How could the electric cables be bound with strong enough rubber to keep bystanders safe from electrocution? Confidence was so weak that early twentieth century standard’s for ship lights were still based on using oil lanterns. This was widely reported in the 1912 editorials about the Titanic sinking. The visibility standard was for only five miles, however, many eye witnesses placed seeing the Titanic’s electric lights anywhere from 12 to 20 miles away.

Inflexible the British warship built in 1880
British warship built in 1880

It was unnerving for many to imagine being hundreds of miles out to sea, and at night, and to rely solely on electric lights. Most ships continued to have on board a supply of oil lanterns, if the electric lights failed. Some critics continued to argue to use oil based lights, as reflected in the article title of the June 11, 1921 issue of Nautical Gazette “Portable Lights on Shipboard Will Never be Fully Replaced.”

Oil lamps, however, were not only smelly, they provided only limited illumination for night travel, and, more importantly, posed a tremendous fire risk. The lanterns, including the ones below deck were too many for a crew to keep a constant vigil over them. Wooden ships, with their seams caulked with tar, ropes greased with fat, and barrels full of gunpowder, there was little that would not burn. Swinging oil lanterns could easily be knocked over by strong winds or waves, not to mention simple onboard accidents that could quickly create an inferno that left no escape for anyone.

Countless maritime historians have described the horrors of ship fires. Eighteenth century British historian W. H. D. Adams reported in his 1876 essay “The Burning of the Cospatrick” (1874), “a small fire broke out and while trying to put it out – the ship ran into heavy winds and the fire completely swept through the vessel.” The 191’ three-masted full-rigged sailing ship had five lifeboats onboard. The fire ensued so quickly that life boats were not launched. Of the 475 persons onboard three survived. The lure of such sea calamities was so strong that it formed the basis of much early English and American literature – Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, and Moby Dick.

By the 1850’s most merchant ships were using small pieces of glass, known as deck prisms, as a way of illuminating the holds below. Affixed on the deck the glass prisms diffused light below. This increased the safety for the merchant’s ships, but passenger ships still needed stronger light illumination. As late as the 1870’s, companies, like the White Star Line, were still building huge cruising ships, some nearly 500’ in length, fully furnished with oil lanterns throughout.

Despite the long history of ship fires at sea, the public was still slow to give up their smelly and dangerous oil lanterns. Progress continued in developing and safely containing electric ship cables, and, dramatically increasing the level of electric power on board vessels. By 1930, electric ship lights, and more importantly, electric power on ships was being fully embraced by the public and ship owners. Oil lanterns became a thing of the past.

Resources and Suggested Readings:

Black, R. M. The History of Electric Wires and Cables London, Peter Peregrinus LTD, 1983.
Burns, Jason. The Life and Times of a Merchant Sailor, New York, Plenum Publishers, 1972.

More about Allen Cornwell

Allen Cornwell is a self-employed business owner and an adjunct American History professor at a small college. He lives in rural Virginia and enjoys history, sports, old movies and visiting all types of museums. Cornwell has had a number of American history articles published and he earned his M. A. degree in American History from Virginia Commonwealth University. He can be contacted at:

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *