Foghorns – In the Beginning Was the Diaphone . . .

Well, in the beginning was the Lightkeeper’s Voice, Fog Bell, Sirens, Dynamite, Cannons and other assorted methods, and then came the Hand Horn. 

Powers Brothers Hand Horn - photo Chris Mills

Lothrop Hand Horn - photo Chris Mills

First of all was the Powers Brothers Hand Horn used in the days before mechanical equipment. Many were used up until the early 1950s. and were still kept on station in case of emergencies well into the 1990s. The horn was activated when a vessel required it, usually by blowing its own horn any time of day or night, occasionally having to wake the keeper with more than one blast. Another smaller version was this Lothrop Hand Horn (right)

[audio:|titles=Powers Brothers Hand Horn] Continue reading

The Diaphone Fog Signal

The Diaphone Fog Signal by Jeff Laser

reprinted with permission from Terry Pepper and his website

Diaphones were a once familiar sound heard throughout the Great Lakes from the early 1920s until the late 1960s / early 1970s when most lighthouses were automated. 120 such installations existed on both U.S. and Canadian waterways in the 1950s. The two most commonly heard Diaphones were the “Standard” Diaphone, which gave a full steady upper tone that terminated in a heavy “grunt” tone, and the classic two-tone Diaphone that produced an upper tone followed by a full steady low tone of equal or greater duration than the upper tone.


Robert Hope-Jones

In 1895, Robert Hope-Jones, an English pipe organ designer and builder, developed a special tone generator for his famous WURLITZER organ; the WURLITZER was a popular musical instrument in the days of silent movies and live stage performances. The new tone generator consisted of a casing that contained a slotted cylinder with a similarly slotted piston. Air was channeled through the casing in such a way that it caused the piston to reciprocate within the cylinder. The major portion of the air was discharged through the slots in both the piston and cylinder as the piston stroked back and forth in the cylinder. As the air passed through slots in the piston, it was “chopped” which caused a vibration that was amplified though a long cone shaped trumpet. Hope-Jones labeled this new tone “diaphonic” (meaning two or more tones”). The new tone had a full, powerful harmonic structure that could be heard over some of the other tones on the pipe organ. He called his new tone generator a Diaphone. Continue reading

Foghorns Were Cool Places to Sleep! c. 1980s

– Roger Mogg (Assistant keeper on McInnes Island 1983 – 1987) 

Airchime horns - photo Chris Mills

Back in the early 1980’s I was offered the job as a assistant lightkeeper at McInnes Island.  I was told at the time that this offer was only for couples, not for singles (this turned out to be false information). I had just broken up with my long term girlfriend so assumed I would have to decline the offer. 

At the last moment I happened to meet a girl named Liz Robertson, and she seemed like the outdoors kind of person that one would have to be to enjoy life at a lightstation. After hardly enough time to know her first we agreed to go to start life as lightkeepers at one of the more remote stations in British Columbia. 

Coast Guard took us there in one of their lighthouse tenders (ships) that also doubled as an icebreaker. After the ship refueled each and every station on the way up from Victoria , we finally arrived at McInnes Island, one of the most scenic places on the planet earth. 

We were real busy the first day as you can imagine. Unpacking all of our belongings, opening up house windows that had been sealed for years with paint, trying to learn weather transmissions, and generaly getting to know how the station operated.

Looks like it just landed

One of Liz’s prized possesions was this cat of hers that was as black as charcoal. John Coldwell the senior keeper was giving me the grand tour of the station and we were in the radio room teaching me how to test the foghorns. Now these foghorms were massive things designed to be heard at sea for several miles in heavy weather (banks of grey painted Airchime horns facing south into the sun and open sea – ed.). 

At this time Liz came running up in a big panic and said that she had just witnessed something black shoot out of one of the foghorns at high speed. We went to investigate and found her cat maybe fifty meters away shaking like something out of a bad cartoon. The cat must have climbed inside one of the foghorns because they were a warm place to take a nap. We never saw the cat go within eyesite of those foghorns again. 

[audio:Pulteney_Point_2X_Electronic_Airchime.mp3|titles=Pulteney Point Electronic Airchime]

Removal of Foghorns on the BC Coast c. 2003

 The article below was written in 2003 by Sherrill Kitson, wife of the lightkeeper Rene Kitson, and herself a qualified lightkeeper at the time.

This story will illustrate why lightkeepers, and not electronic sensors, are better weather observers. We can smell the fog, and many a mariner will back us up on that statement.

Now, all we can do is smell the fog, and hope that nobody gets hurt because there are no more foghorns.

(The text below is in a picture. If it is too hard too read, hold down the CTRL key (STRG in Deutsch) and rotate the wheel on your mouse forward or back to increase the photo size – it works on most computers and operating systems.)



The story is reprinted here with permission of Fisheries and Oceans Canada from their publication Shorelines 2003 (which does not appear to be available online – if anyone knows a link, please let me know).

A Return to Foghorns a Boon to Safety Even in Age of GPS

photo - Chris Mills

A return to foghorns a boon to safety even in age of GPS

by Glen Farrough,  Vancouver Sun, September 08, 2011

It’s been roughly eight years since the Coast Guard silenced most of the foghorns on our coastal lighthouses, for a saving of $75,000 per year. The main reason used to justify this move was the increasingly widespread use of global positioning system (GPS) devices.

But this same Coast Guard still feels it’s necessary to have all their visual aids to navigation in place. They maintain their system of day markers, cardinal buoys, lighthouses, etc. Continue reading