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By David Rooney on

Chance would be a fine thing

David Rooney discusses even more history of the lighthouse.

Following my recent post about the Souter Point lighthouse in South Shields, Jack Kirby at Thinktank (the Birmingham Science Museum) mentioned the lighthouse optic they’ve got in their collection, from Longstone Lighthouse, off the Northumberland coast.

It’s by Chance Brothers, a Birmingham firm that specialised in precision optical technology such as lighthouse lenses, as well as being responsible for glazing the Crystal Palace, the Houses of Parliament and the dials of Big Ben.

Houses of Parliament (NMeM / Royal Photographic Society / Science & Society)

As Jack pointed out, we’ve got a superb Chance Brothers lighthouse optic on show too – ours is from the Eilean Glas light on Scalpay in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. You can see it in Making the Modern World, and it’s on loan to us from the wonderful National Museums Scotland.

Eilean Glas lighthouse optic, 1907 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

These optical systems use the clever Fresnel lens system, in which the light is focused and directed by concentric rings of prisms. This makes them much lighter than one-piece lenses (though the glass in the Eilean Glas optic alone weighs three tons) and more powerful beams were made possible, saving lives at sea.

Bella Bathhurst’s book ‘The Lighthouse Stevensons’ tells the story of a remarkable family of engineers that designed lighthouses around the Scottish coast (including Eilean Glas), and is well worth a look.

5 comments on “Chance would be a fine thing

  1. Regarding your post on the Souter Point lighthouse, I wonder if you have come across my book Lighthouses: the race to illuminate the world, published in 2008. It’s an account of how Chance Brothers became the world’s leading lighthouse manufacturer. Bella Bathhurt’s book is an excellent review of the Stevenson’s contribution to lighthouse engineering. My book aims to cast the Chance dynasty in a similar vein.

  2. Hi Toby, thanks for the comment. I do indeed have your book on my Wishlist and it is getting close to the top. I’m looking forward to reading it. Best wishes, David Rooney.

  3. Very interesting reading about Chance Brothers of Oldbury near Birmingham. I believe the old site and buildings of Chance Brothers is going to be turned into a heritage visitors centre as there is quite lot left. Lets hope this happens as so much of the areas industrial past has been swept away.
    I have a friend who’s family business was an old established cast iron foundry also in Oldbury called ‘Hunt Brothers Griffin Foundry’. According to there family legend they worked closely with Chances in the construction of the Crystal Palace. It would be great to find out a bit more on this mater. I’ll have to invest in a copy of Toby Chance’s book.

  4. I served engineering apprenticeship at Chance Brothers lighthouse works 1946 to 52. The works was razed to the ground during 1970`s. I am trying to build a story of what has happened to some of their famous lighthouse optics inc. Eilean Glas. Can we make contact.
    Birmingham Think Tank is very impressive as is The Scottish Museum in Chambers St.

  5. David,

    I was glad to find this page on my phone while standing next to the lens in the museum yesterday. I was trying to find out if it was in fact a Chance lens, because disappointingly there is no mention of the highly innovative British engineering and manufacturing firm on the information stand next to it.

    Could this be added at some point?

    The room is full of lots of wonderful information about the engineers and scientists who shaped Victorian Britain, but with this and a few other exhibits the people and the significance of their work (beyond this single lighthouse) remain a mystery to visitors.

    Tom Chance (descendent of James Timmins Chance, Toby’s nephew)

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