Friday, March 19, 2004

The Civil War is well-known for its military innovations, many of which are still used today in more developed form. Thaddeus Lowe’s observation balloons, for example, are ancestors of today’s spy planes and satellites. Another lesser-known invention was an ancestor of today’s “shock and awe” technique — the calcium light.

The inventor was one Robert Grant, and his idea was a variation of the limelight. Limelights would generate an intense white light by subjecting calcium oxide (or lime) to intense heat. They often were used in theaters; hence the phrase “in the limelight.” The version used by the professor, as the New Yorker was styled, used an oxy-hydrogen jet as a heat source.

Efforts rewarded

In 1850, Grant contacted Sen. Robert Hunter, who on Aug. 9 “presented the memorial of Robert Grant, praying that an appropriation may be made for lighting the public buildings and grounds in the city of Washington by means of the calcium light, of which he is the inventor.”

By Aug. 28, Sen. Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, who would become Abraham Lincoln’s first vice president a decade later, presented a slightly different proposal, a petition that “an appropriation may be made for the purpose of testing the merits of the calcium light invented by him for the use of the light-houses.”

The professor’s efforts were rewarded. Congress later that year authorized $5,000 for “the Secretary of the Treasury to test the use and economy of the calcium light.”

Professor Grant must have buckled down to work immediately, for the Feb. 15, 1851, issue of Scientific American mentioned his conducting a test one night in New York harbor. The calcium light threw a beam from Staten Island to Castle Garden at the southern tip of Manhattan — 8½ miles. On Aug. 8, 1853, Grant’s lights provided illumination for New York City’s Mammoth Festival. An 8 p.m. fireworks show was provided by Edge Co., with which the professor would have occasion to work again.

In late 1854, a demonstration similar to the 1851 New York harbor test took place from Latting Tower in Upper Manhattan. The light, using a parabolic reflector, was seen 11 miles away.

The New York Times reported in its Nov. 21, 1857, issue that the calcium light was being issued to ships to signal each other at night.

‘A blaze of glory’

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the professor offered his services to the Lincoln administration. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler expressed particular interest, and in mid-June 1861, a calcium light was installed on the parapets of Fort Monroe at Hampton Roads. It was used to detect would-be saboteurs or enemy ships trying to slip by.

The lighting worked so well that Grant proposed forming a Calcium Light Regiment, also called Calcium Light Infantry Sharp-shooters. The War Department gave the go-ahead in August. Late that month, the National Republican, a pro-Lincoln newspaper in Washington, reported: “This regiment will do their fighting at night, by aid of the professor’s calcium light” and “this regiment, while it lights up its own pathway, will blind the enemy, and then pour rifle balls and rockets into them.”

The paper concluded that “this light and fire regiment will create a decided sensation, and, we hope, will leave the field in a blaze of glory.” Whoever wrote the piece did not seem to be taking the professor very seriously.

The rockets were to come from the fireworks firm of Joseph G. Edge and Isaac Edge. Edge Co. was at 37 Maiden Lane in Jersey City, with several outlets in New York City. The New York Times of Aug. 29, 1861, ran an article describing in detail the weapons the company would supply.

One was the “incendiary shell.” In flight, a large-size shell would generate a ball of fire 4 feet in circumference. The shell could keep burning for two to three minutes. Then an internal shell would explode, scattering fragments — an early example of shrapnel.

A smaller version would generate a fireball of 2 feet in circumference. One soldier (supposedly) could carry 20 of these smaller shells, with a “paper mortar” to launch them.

The Edges also claimed to have rockets with a range of one-half to three-quarter miles, with an exhaust of 3 feet to 4 feet circumference and about 40 feet long.

Shock and awe

While all of this was going on, of course, the professor would be bathing the battlefield in searchlights, giving Union soldiers clear targets to shoot at and temporarily blinding the Confederates. Shock and awe, indeed.

The calcium light was becoming so well-known it even appeared in a humorous love poem in the Oct. 5, 1861, issue of Vanity Fair. It included such lines as “Since Chemistry from humble lime / The Calcium has kindled / Then come to me, thy hand united / With mine, my blue-eyed flower / We’ll wander by the calcium light / At fifty cents an hour!”

Sometime in late 1861 or early 1862, the professor got together Robert Grant’s Calcium Light Sharpshooters, also known as Company E from New York City, of the 102nd New York Regiment. Further research, however, has uncovered no further accounts of this company actually using searchlights in battle. The surviving records of the 102nd have nothing more to say on the subject.

There is no further mention of Union soldiers using rockets, either. Perhaps the skyrockets of the day were too unreliable. Even so, the Edge firm did fight a Civil War battle, of sorts. During the July 4, 1862, celebrations in New York City, it provided a display outside City Hall.

The show included a re-enactment of the battle between the Monitor and Virginia at Hampton Roads the previous March 9. The two fireworks ships lobbed Roman-candle fireballs at each other. Some of the Monitor’s shots hit City Hall but did no serious damage.

Professor Grant went back to offering the calcium light by itself again. Undoubtedly his biggest moment was at the Union campaign against Charleston Harbor, S.C. On July 18, 1863, there was an unsuccessful assault on nearby Fort Wagner. The attackers included the 54th Massachusetts, as dramatized in the movie “Glory.” After the assault failed, the Union commander, Gen. Quincy Adams Gilmore, began a siege.

The fort was put under near-constant artillery bombardment. Meanwhile, at night, professor Grant would cover the fort with two calcium lights. The lights were set up 750 yards from Fort Wagner, near the Union trenches. A laboratory was built nearby, staffed by 20 soldiers and 20 black civilians, and the necessary hydrogen and oxygen were generated on the spot.

Blinded by the light

Again, the lights used parabolic reflectors. Each focused its light on the fort only and left the Union trenches in darkness. Under that glare, it was impossible for the fort’s defenders to come out at night to repair any damage. The lights threw off the aim of the Confederate soldiers and didn’t help their sleep any, either.

Meanwhile, the Union trenches were being dug ever closer to the fort. After several weeks of this, the Confederates abandoned the place on Sept. 6.

Perhaps professor Grant’s last public service took place on Aug. 30, 1866, in New York City. President Andrew Johnson was being treated to a city festival. At night, the area around his hotel was lit up by three calcium lights.

Curiously, after Grant’s relatively short time in the glare of recognition, he simply vanished from public accounts.

In later years, the calcium light was used for parades, slide shows and nighttime sports. There was even a Calcium Light Oil Co.

It all eventually was superseded by Edison’s electric lights, which were safer and more convenient.

Even so, as late as 1942, U.S. merchant seamen were still using calcium lights in their safety equipment.

• John Lockwood is a Washington writer.

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