Friday 17 May 2013

Shining a light on a new era

In my previous post I invited readers to suggest why I found fault with a scene portraying an episode on board one of Franklin's ships. My answers all concern lighting. Firstly, the oil lamp: If Franklin and Fitzjames can see each other at all it will only be dimly, their eyes being dazzled by the brightness of the lamp between them at face level. From the Art Director's point of view it makes for a great image but in real life it would be extremely annoying for those seated at the table. The next thing to mention is that we can see portholes in the far bulkhead. Erebus and Terror didn't have any portholes, instead they had Preston's Patent Illuminators in the deck. The Captain's cabin also had (double glazed) rectangular windows in the stern of the ship. Both the Captain's cabin and the wardroom also had a skylight as does the location this scene was shot, the officers' saloon on the Cutty Sark. This begs another question - if there is light coming in through the portholes, why isn't the cabin flooded with light from the skylight? If it's daylight then why do they need the lamp?

These are fairly trivial details of set dressing but there is one detail which is anachronistic for a ship fitted out in 1845 - the oil lamp. Except that it's not an oil lamp, it's a kerosene lamp (like this one). If you try looking for an antique oil lamp on eBay about 99.5% of the results returned will be kerosene lamps. Kerosene, also known as paraffin, is thin enough to be drawn up the wick by capilliary action from a reservoir a considerable distance below the burner. On the other hand, the whale oil and vegetable oils used for lighting in Franklin's day were more viscous so the reservoir has to be almost  level with the flame. The first commercial refinery for kerosene was opened in Bathgate, Scotland, by James 'Paraffin' Young in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, so it is not credible that Franklin's ships would be lit by kerosene lamps. The raw materials for Young's refinery were varieties of coal now regarded as oil shale.

Click for full-size image
The above sketch depicts the wardroom of the steam-tender Pioneer, by her commander (from 1851), Sherard Osborn. At first glance the hanging lamp is not greatly different from the one in the documentary. This type is known as a sinubra lamp (like this one). The oil is held at the level of the burner in an annular reservoir supporting the shade and designed to minimise the shadow it casts - hence the name from Latin meaning without shadow.

The mid Victorian period in which the Franklin saga occurred is particularly fascinating for the relentless cascade of technological advances which wrought profound changes in peoples lives in a few short years. Historians frequently use 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, as a convenient boundary marker between an earlier agrarian age and the later industrial epoch. The advent of fossil energy in liquid form being just one of many technological advances which fuelled the Victorian revolution.

As a footnote, in 1821 Franklin missed an opportunity to see an early experiment with street lighting using fossil fuel, as he was engaged on his Coppermine river expedition. The demonstration was superintended by the brother of the inventor, Sir Thomas Cochrane, who was, at the time, commanding the Chilean Navy in that country's war of independence.


  1. Peter,

    Interesting posts. Particularly when I watch movies portraying scenes onboard ships, I'm curious to note the handling of lighting -"Master and Commander," for example.

  2. Magnific and thorough analysis of the lighting of the Royal Navy in the ninetenth century, Peter

  3. Peter, brilliant stuff all 'round!

    I had a great time working with Louise Osmond, who was fabulous as the director of both the re-enactments and contemporary experts' segments of this documentary. I did not, alas, get to meet the actors who played Sir John Franklin and his men, but did have the chance to meet Kåre Conradi in Gjoa Haven. Despite the big budget of this production, the shooting at so many and various locations often required improvisation, and with some details such as these, it wasn't always possible to be 100% accurate. I could offer many examples, but one comes to mind: the tins made to resemble Goldner's tins in their crushed and rusted condition weren't available at the Nunavut locations, so they were shot months later, stacked around the foot of a tree in Washington DC, where a second crew had come to record me along with the Hall papers at the Smithsonian!

  4. It is thought that there was something at Victory point that the admiralty did not want anyone to know about. That John Ross first saw it and turned tail and went home destroying his name and career; that James Clark Ross checked out for the Admiralty and they had Perry forge fake documents as to where the Fury was beached; After going there Ross made excuses why he could not take on the expedition that later Franklin took on....and the admiralty sent Franklin there with a boat load of scientists who knew nothing about artic travel...and yet the admiralty insisted he wasn't going there and that they should search in other areas,,,,,,.WHAT WAS AT VICTORY POINT....anyone been there, anyone know? Suspect....I am writing a play about any input would be great.

  5. I am planning a fairly extensive visit retracing the Franklin Expedition and the inland river trips of Franklin and Rae (July 2014) using two deHavilland Turbo Beavers on large tundra tires which will allow us to visit places like Beechey Island, King William Island and many places on the Coppermine River.

    I am anxious to learn more from all those who have the time and the inclination to discuss the same. Rick Nielsen

  6. Apologies for asking about the three mistakes - I didn't see this post until now.
    Have you found other mistakes in the documentation? I've watched it too, and I'm wondering if there are more.

    For example, I'm wondering why the HMS Erebus or Terror shown there seem to have no chimneys sticking out the deck (unlike e.g. Shackleton's "Endurance"), despite having a steam engine. Shouldn't they both have had one?

    Furthermore, in Geiger's and Beattie's "Frozen in Time" there was this engraving (of a relief?) showing how Victorian newspapers imagined the burial of Sir John Franklin. (Know which one I mean? I don't have the book on hand right now)
    The way the crewmen are dressed in that image looks different from the way they're dressed in the "Arctic Passage" documentation.
    Which is more authentic, in your opinion? All I know is the English back then would've relied more on wool than fur like the Inuit...

    1. I meant "documentary" (English isn't my native language)

  7. Greetings, very nice article. I got here by reading The Terror by Dan Simmons and googled the Preston Patented Illuminator.

  8. Me too... Brian from Alaska...


Stephan Goldner and the Billion Dollar Corporation

  I was amazed to discover recently that it is now ten years ago, in November 2012, that I had the privilege to travel to Nelson Mandela Rd,...