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Kate’s Corner #27

Kate Walker here, keeping the light on Robbins Reef.

If I don’t write English too good, you’re probably wondering how I write these blog posts. Voice recognition software. It’s wonderful. I just say what I want to and the computer records it. Then my son Jacob goes through what I’ve said and straightens out my awkward sentences. I rely constantly on Jacob and don’t know what I would do without him. He was also my postman, marketman, and general courier.

Jacob was officially appointed assistant keeper in 1896. He married and brought his bride to Robbins Reef to live, using the second bedroom. When I retired in 1919, Jacob became principal keeper. He was in charge when the Lighthouse Service began experimenting with radio.

The first radio beacons, installed after 1921 to allow navigators to pinpoint their position, must have seemed almost miraculous. Marine radio beacons were non-directional; the signal was sent to the whole horizon. The first signals used were short and distinctive for each station. Sending minutes were alternated and frequencies varied so that signals would not interfere with each other. Ships needed only a simple direction-finder or radio compass to pick up the signals.

Circa 1930s postcard of Highland Lighthouse on Cape Cod with radio beacons. (Collection of Jeremy D’Entremont)

The navigator on the bridge of the transatlantic steamer, when he was 200 miles or so off the coast, began to take radio bearings on Nantucket lightship. For most of the vessels crossing the Atlantic this was the first radio outpost of America. When he picked up the signal four dashes (—-) repeated continuously, he knew he had the lightship, and in a few seconds by rotating the coil first from one side and then from the other, until the signal fades away, he obtained accurately the direction of the Nantucket Beacon. After passing Nantucket safely, the navigator could at once pick up the two dash (- -) radio signal of Fire Island Light ship, and later the continuous dot ( . . . . . . ) signal of Ambrose Lightship, anchored off the entrance to the Ambrose Channel into New York Harbor.

The Ambrose Lightship (WAL-512), now a tourist attraction at the South Street Seaport in New York City, received one of the earliest radio beacons in the U.S. in 1921, greatly assisting navigation of the congested channel in dense fog. Photo by Jeremy D’Entremont.

A vessel equipped with a radio direction-finder could take a bearing on another ship sending radio signals, and thus determine its direction at sea by the same method it would use with the radio beacon on shore. This taking of bearings between ship and ship diminished the risk of collision and fog and it also helped one ship to find another which may be in distress.

Introduction of the radio was an enormous boon to mariners. With the ability to communicate with land and other vessels, mariners could send distress calls and share weather forecasts and notices of moved buoys or defects in aids to navigation. Jacob enjoyed experimenting with his radio beacon.


Information is from Annual Reports of the Light-House Board and George R. Putnam, Sentinel of the Coasts (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1937), pp. 199 – 215.

2 thoughts on “Kate’s Corner #27

  1. Jeremy,
    You mentioned the new format and increased frequency of the lighthouse posts about a month ago (November or December). I’m enjoying them, as I am sure many others are.
    Regarding the radio beacons, I’m sure you are aware of the tragedy near Point Arguello, California, when the fleet traveling south turned early because the captain didn’t trust the (new)
    signal and several ships hit the shore and sank.

    Congratulations and thank you for your work and sharing it with us all!
    Happy New Year,
    Sharlene P. Nelson

  2. With the ability to communicate with land and other vessels, mariners could send distress calls and share weather forecasts and notices of moved buoys or defects in aids to navigation

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