by Matthew LuckieshApril 26th, 2023
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When the recent war broke out science responded to the call and under the stress of feverish necessity compressed the normal development of a half-century into a few years. The airplane, in 1914 a doubtful plaything of daredevils, emerged from the war a perfected thing of the air. Lighting did not have the glamor of flying or the novelty of chemical warfare, but it progressed greatly in certain directions and served well. While artificial lighting conducted its unheralded offensive by increasing production in the supporting industries and helped to maintain liaison with the front-line trenches by lending eyes to transportation, it was also doing its part at the battle front. Huge search-lights revealed the submarine and the aërial bomber; flares exposed the manœuvers of the enemy; rockets brought aid to beleaguered vessels and troops; pistol lights fired by the aërial observer directed artillery fire; and many other devices of artificial light were in the fray. Many improvements were made in search-lights and in signaling devices and the elements of the festive fireworks of past ages were improved and developed for the needs of modern warfare.
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Artificial Light: Its Influence Upon Civilization by Matthew Luckiesh is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. ARTIFICIAL LIGHT IN WARFARE


When the recent war broke out science responded to the call and under the stress of feverish necessity compressed the normal development of a half-century into a few years. The airplane, in 1914 a doubtful plaything of daredevils, emerged from the war a perfected thing of the air. Lighting did not have the glamor of flying or the novelty of chemical warfare, but it progressed greatly in certain directions and served well. While artificial lighting conducted its unheralded offensive by increasing production in the supporting industries and helped to maintain liaison with the front-line trenches by lending eyes to transportation, it was also doing its part at the battle front. Huge search-lights revealed the submarine and the aërial bomber; flares exposed the manœuvers of the enemy; rockets brought aid to beleaguered vessels and troops; pistol lights fired by the aërial observer directed artillery fire; and many other devices of artificial light were in the fray. Many improvements were made in search-lights and in signaling devices and the elements of the festive fireworks of past ages were improved and developed for the needs of modern warfare.

Night after night along the battle front flares were sent up to reveal patrols and any other enemy activity. On the slightest suspicion great swarms of these brilliant lights would burst forth as though flocks of huge fireflies had been disturbed. They were even used as light barrages, for movements could be executed in comparative safety when a large number of these lights lay before the enemy's trenches sputtering their brilliant light. The airman dropped flares to illuminate his target or his landing field. The torches of past parades aided the soldier in his night operations and rockets sent skyward radiated their messages to headquarters in the rear. The star-shell had the same missions as other flares, but it was projected by a charge of powder from a gun. These and many modifications represent the useful applications of what formerly were mere "fireworks." Those which are primarily signaling devices are discussed in another chapter, but the others will be described sufficiently to indicate the place which artificial light played in certain phases of warfare.

The illuminating compounds used in these devices are not particularly new, consisting essentially of a combustible powder and chemical salts which make the flame luminous and give it color when desired. Among the ingredients are barium nitrate, potassium perchlorate, powdered aluminum, powdered magnesium, potassium nitrate, and sulphur. One of the simplest mixtures used by the English is,

The magnesium is coated with hot wax or paraffin, which not only acts as a binder for the mixture when it is pressed into its container but also serves to prevent oxidation of the magnesium when the shells are stored. The barium and potassium nitrates supply the oxygen to the magnesium, which burns with a brilliant white flame. The potassium nitrate takes fire more readily than the barium nitrate, but it is more expensive than the latter.

Owing to the cost of magnesium, powdered aluminum has been used to some extent as a substitute. Aluminum does not have the illuminating value of magnesium and it is more difficult to ignite, but it is a good substitute in case of necessity. An English mixture containing these elements is,

Mixtures which are slow to ignite must be supplemented by a primary mixture which is readily ignited. For obtaining colored lights it is only necessary to add chemicals which will give the desired color. The mixtures can be proportioned by means of purely theoretical considerations; that is, just enough oxygen can be present to burn the fuel completely. However, usually more oxygen is supplied than called for by theory.

The illuminating shell is perhaps the most useful of these devices to the soldier. It has been constructed with and without parachutes, the former providing an intense light for a brief period because it falls rapidly. These shells of the larger calibers are equipped with time-fuses and are generally rather elaborate in construction. The shell is of steel, and has a time-fuse at the tip. This fuse ignites a charge of black powder in the nose of the shell and this explosion ejects the star-shell out of the rear of the steel casing. At the same time the black powder ignites the priming mixture next to it, which in turn ignites the slow-burning illuminating compound. The star-shell has a large parachute of strong material folded in the rear of the casing and the cardboard tube containing the illuminating mixture is attached to it. The time of burning varies, but is ordinarily less than a minute. Certain structural details must be such as to endure the stresses of a high muzzle velocity. Furthermore, a velocity of perhaps 1000 feet per second still obtains when the star-shell with its parachute is ejected at the desired point in the air.

The non-parachute illuminating shell is designed to give an intense light for a brief interval and is especially applicable to defense against air raids. Such a light aims to reveal the aircraft in order that the gunners may fire at it effectively. These shells are fitted with time-fuses which fire the charge of black powder at the desired interval after the discharge of the shell from the gun. The contents of the shell are thereby ejected and ignited. The container for the illuminating material is so designed that there is rapid combustion and consequently a brilliant light for about ten seconds. The enemy airman in this short time is unable to obtain any valuable knowledge pertaining to the earth below and furthermore he is likely to be temporarily blinded by the brilliant light if it is near him.

The rifle-light which resembles an ordinary rocket, is fired from a rifle and is designed for short-range use. It consists of a steel cylindrical shell a few inches long fastened to a steel rod. A parachute is attached to the cardboard container in which the illuminating mixture is packed and the whole is stowed away in the steel shell. Shore delay-fuses are used for starting the usual cycle of events after the rifle-light has been fired from the gun. The steel rod is injected into the barrel of a rifle and a blank cartridge is used for ejecting this rocket-like apparatus. Owing to inertia the firing-pin in the shell operates and the short delay-fuse is thus fired automatically an instant after the trigger of the rifle is pulled.

Illuminating "bombs" of the same general principles are used by airmen in search of a landing for himself or for a destructive bomb; in signaling to a gunner, and in many other ways. They are simple in construction because they need not withstand the stresses of being fired from a gun; they are merely dropped from the aircraft. The mechanism of ignition and the cycle of events which follow are similar to those of other illuminating shells.

The value of such artificial-lighting devices depends both upon luminous intensity and time of burning. Although long-burning is not generally required in warfare, it is obvious that more than a momentary light is usually needed. In general, high candle-power and long-burning are opposed to each other, so that the most intense lights of this character usually are of short duration. Typical performances of two flares of the same composition are as follows:

The illuminating compound was the same in these two flares, which differed only in the time allowed for burning. Of course, the measurements of the luminous intensity of such flares is difficult because of the fluctuations, but within the errors of the measurements it is seen that the illuminating power of the compound is about the same regardless of the time of burning. The light-source in the case of burning powders is really a flame, and inasmuch as the burning end hangs downward, more light is emitted in the lower hemisphere than in the upper. The candle-power of the largest flares equals the combined luminous intensities of 200 street arc-lamps or of 10,000 ordinary 40-watt tungsten lamps such as are used in residence lighting.

It is interesting to note the candle-hours obtained per cubic inch of compound and to find that the cost of this light is less than that of candles at the present time and only five or ten times greater than that of modern electric lighting.

Illuminating shells in use during the recent war were designed for muzzle velocities as high as 2700 feet per second and were gaged to ignite at any distance from a quarter of a mile to several miles. The maximum range of illuminating shells fired from rifles was about 200 yards; for trench mortars about one mile; and from field and naval guns about four miles.

The search-light has long been a valuable aid in warfare and during the recent conflict considerable attention was given to its development and application. It is used chiefly for detecting and illuminating distant targets, but this covers a wide range of conditions and requirements. In order that a search-light may be effective at a great distance, as much as possible of the light emitted by a source is directed into a beam of light of as nearly parallel rays as can be obtained. Reflectors are usually employed in military search-lights, and in order that the beam may be as nearly parallel (minimum divergence) as possible, the light must be emitted by the smallest source compatible with high intensity. This source is placed at the proper point in respect to a large parabolic reflecter which renders the rays parallel or nearly so.

Ever since its advent the electric arc has been employed in large search-lights, with which the army and the navy were supplied; however, the greatest improvements have been made under the stress of war. The science of aëronautics advanced so rapidly during the recent war that the necessity for powerful search-lights was greatly augmented and as the conflict progressed the enemy airmen came to look upon the newly developed ones with considerable concern. The rapidly moving aircraft and its high altitude brought new factors into the design of these lights. It now became necessary to have the most intense beam and to be able to sweep the heavens with it by means of delicate controlling apparatus, for the targets were sometimes minute specks moving at high speed at altitudes as high as five miles. Furthermore, owing to the shifting battle areas, mobile apparatus was necessary.

The control of light by means of reflectors has been studied for centuries, but until the advent of the electric arc the light-sources were of such large areas that effective control was impossible. Optical devices generally are considered in connection with "point sources," but inasmuch as no light can be obtained from a point, a source of small dimensions and of high brightness is the most effective compromise. Parabolic mirrors were in use in the eighteenth century and their properties were known long before the first search-light worthy of the name was made in 1825 by Drummond, who used as a source of light a piece of lime heated to incandescence in a blast flame. He finally developed the "lime-light" by directing an oxyhydrogen flame upon a piece of lime and this device was adapted to search-lights and to indoor projection. It is said that the first search-light to be used in warfare was a Drummond lime-light which played a part in the attack on Fort Wagner at Charleston in 1863.

In 1848 the first electric arc lamp used for general lighting was installed in Paris. It was supplied with current by a large voltaic cell, but the success of the electric arc was obliged to await the development of a more satisfactory source of electricity. A score of years was destined to elapse, after the public was amazed by the first demonstration, before a suitable electric dynamo was invented. With the advent of the dynamo, the electric arc was rapidly developed and thus there became available a concentrated light-source of high intensity and great brilliancy. Gradually the size was increased, until at the present time mirrors as large as seven feet in diameter and electric currents as great as several hundred amperes are employed. The beam intensities of the most powerful search-lights are now as great as several hundred million candles.

The most notable advance in the design of arc search-lights was achieved in recent years by Beck, who developed an intensive flame carbon-arc. His chief object was to send a much greater current through the arc than had been done previously without increasing the size of the carbons and the unsteadiness of the arc. In the ordinary arc excessive current causes the carbons to disintegrate rapidly unless they are of large diameter. Beck directed a stream of alcohol vapor at the arc and they were kept from oxidizing. He thus achieved a high current-density and much greater beam intensities. He also used cored carbons containing certain metallic salts which added to the luminous intensity, and by rotation of the positive carbon so that the crater was kept in a constant position, greater steadiness and uniformity were obtained. Tests show that, in addition to its higher luminous efficiency, an arc of this character directs a greater percentage of the light into the effective angle of the mirror. The small source results in a beam of small divergence; in other words, the beam differs from a cylinder by only one or two degrees. If the beam consisted entirely of parallel rays and if there were no loss of light in the atmosphere by scattering or by absorption, the beam intensity would be the same throughout its entire length. However, both divergence and atmospheric losses tend to reduce the intensity of the beam as the distance from the search-light increases.

Inasmuch as the intensity of the beam depends upon the actual brightness of the light-source, the brightness of a few modern light-sources are of interest. These are expressed in candles per square inch of projected area; that is, if a small hole in a sheet of metal is placed next to the light-source and the intensity of the light passing through this hole is measured, the brightness of the hole is easily determined in candles per square inch.

As the reflector of a search-light is an exceedingly important factor in obtaining high beam-intensities, considerable attention has been given to it since the practicable electric arc appeared. The parabolic mirror has the property of rendering parallel, or nearly so, the rays from a light-source placed at its focus. If the mirror subtends a large angle at the light-source, a greater amount of light is intercepted and rendered parallel than in the case of smaller subtended angles; hence, mirrors are large and of as short focus as practicable. Search-light projectors direct from 30 to 60 per cent. of the available light into the beam, but with lens systems the effective angle is so small that a much smaller percentage is delivered in the beam. Mangin in 1874 made a reflector of glass in which both outer and inner surfaces were spherical but of different radii of curvature, so that the reflector was thicker in the middle. This device was "silvered" on the outside and the refraction in the glass, as the light passed through it to the mirror and back again, corrected the spherical aberration of the mirrored surface. These have been extensively used. Many combinations of curved surfaces have been developed for special projection purposes, but the parabolic mirror is still in favor for powerful search-lights. The tip of the positive carbon is placed at its focus and the effective angle in which light is intercepted by the mirror is generally about 125 degrees. Within this angle is included a large portion of the light emitted by the light-source in the case of direct-current arcs. If this angle is increased for a mirror of a given diameter by decreasing its focal length, the divergence of the beam is increased and the beam-intensity is diminished. This is due to the fact that the light-source now becomes apparently larger; that is, being of a given size it now subtends a larger angle at the reflector and departs more from the theoretical point.

When the recent war began the search-lights available were intended generally for fixed installations. These were "barrel" lights with reflectors several feet in diameter, the whole output sometimes weighing as much as several tons. Shortly after the entrance of this country into the war, a mobile "barrel" search-light five feet in diameter was produced, which, complete with carriage, weighed only 1800 pounds. Later there were further improvements. An example of the impetus which the stress of war gives to technical accomplishments is found in the development of a particular mobile searchlight. Two months after the War Department submitted the problems of design to certain large industrial establishments a new 60-inch search-light was placed in production. It weighed one fifth as much as the previous standard; it had one twentieth the bulk; it was much simpler; it could be built in one fourth the time; and it cost half as much. Remote control of the apparatus has been highly developed in order that the operator may be at a distance from the scattered light near the unit. If he is near the search-light, this veil of diffused light very seriously interferes with his vision.

Mobile power-units were necessary and the types developed used the automobile engine as the prime mover. In one the generator is located in front of the engine and supported beyond the automobile chassis. In another type the generator is located between the automobile transmission and the differential. A standard clutch and gear-shift lever is employed to connect the engine either with the generator or with the propeller shaft of the truck. The first type included a 115-volt, 15-kilowatt generator, a 36-inch wheel barrel search-light, and 500 feet of wire cable. The second type included a 105-volt, 20-kilowatt generator, a 60-inch open searchlight, and 600 feet of cable. This type has been extended in magnitude to include a 50-kilowatt generator. When these units are moved, the search-light and its carriage are loaded upon the rear of the mobile generating equipment. An idea of the intensities obtainable with the largest apparatus is gained from illumination produced at a given distance. For example, the 15-kilowatt search-light with highly concentrated beam, produced an illumination at 930 feet of 280 foot-candles. At this point this is the equivalent of the illumination produced by a source having a luminous intensity of nearly 250,000,000 candles.

Of course, the range at which search-lights are effective is the factor of most importance, but this depends upon a number of conditions such as the illumination produced by the beam at various distances, the atmospheric conditions, the position of the observer, the size, pattern, color, and reflection-factor of the object, and the color, pattern, and reflection-factor of the background. These are too involved to be discussed here, but it may be stated that under ordinary conditions these powerful lights are effective at distances of several miles. According to recent work, it appears that the range of a search-light in revealing a given object under fixed conditions varies about as the fourth root of its intensity.

Although the metallic parabolic reflector is used in the most powerful search-lights, there have been many other developments adapted to warfare. Fresnel lenses have been used above the arc for search-lights whose beams are directed upward in search of aircraft, thus replacing the mirror below the arc, which, owing to its position, is always in danger of deterioration by the hot carbon particles dropping upon it. For short ranges incandescent filament lamps have been used with success. Oxyacetylene equipment has found application, owing to its portability. The oxyacetylene flame is concentrated upon a small pellet of ceria, which provides a brilliant source of small dimensions. A tank containing about 1000 liters of dissolved acetylene and another containing about 1100 liters of oxygen supply the fuel. A beam having an intensity of about 1,500,000 candles is obtained with a consumption of 40 liters of each of the gases per hour. At this rate the search-light may be operated twenty hours without replenishing.

Although the beacon-light for nocturnal airmen is a development which will assume much importance in peaceful activities, it was developed chiefly to meet the requirements of warfare. These do not differ materially from those which guide the mariner, except that the traveler in the aërial ocean is far above the plane on which the beacon rests. For this reason the lenses are designed to send light generally upward. In foreign countries several types of beacons for aërial navigation have been in use. In one the light from the source is freely emitted in all upward directions, but the light normally emitted into the lower hemisphere is turned upward by means of prisms. In a more elaborate type, belts of lenses are arranged so as to send light in all directions above the horizontal plane. A flashing apparatus is used to designate the locality by the number or character of the flashes. Electric filaments and acetylene flames have been used as the light-sources for this purpose. In another type the light is concentrated in one azimuth and the whole beacon is revolved. Portable beacons employing gas were used during the war on some of the flying-fields near the battle front.

All kinds of lighting and lighting-devices were used depending upon the needs and material available. Even self-luminous paint was used for various purposes at the front, as well as for illuminating watch-dials and the scales of instruments. Wooden buttons two or three inches in diameter covered with self-luminous paint could be fixed wherever desired and thus serve as landmarks. They are visible only at short distances and the feebleness of their light made them particularly valuable for various purposes at the battle front. They could be used in the hand for giving optical signals at a short distance where silence was essential. Self-luminous arrows and signs directed troops and trucks at night and even stretcher-bearers have borne self-luminous marks on their backs in order to identify them to their friends.

Somewhat analogous to this application of luminous paint is the use of blue light at night on battle-ships and other vessels in action or near the enemy. Several years ago a Brazilian battle-ship built in this country was equipped with a dual lighting-system. The extra one used deep-blue light, which is very effective for eyes adapted to darkness or to very low intensities of illumination and is a short-range light. Owing to the low luminous intensity of the blue lights they do not carry far; and furthermore, it is well established that blue light does not penetrate as far through ordinary atmosphere as lights of other colors of the same intensity.

The war has been responsible for great strides in certain directions in the development and use of artificial light and the era of peace will inherit these developments and will adapt them to more constructive purposes.

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This book is part of the public domain. Matthew Luckiesh (2006). Artificial Light: Its Influence upon Civilization. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved October 2022

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