Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse

Regular readers may recall my uneasy détente with heights, so get this: last Thursday, I climbed a lighthouse.

Lighthouse

And not just any lighthouse: the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse, which is the tallest in mainland Australia. (It’s nice to know that the carefully-qualified superlative is not just an eastern states thing. The tallest is on King Island. And Cape Leeuwin is the south-west-most point of Australia.) Here is a photo as proof:

View from lighthouse

And then I walked around the railing at the top. I should have said “the photo” because I didn’t have the nerve to take any more, so you’ll have to trust me on that.

Lighthouse

Lighthouses are at once purely functional – a light on a pole which won’t fall down in the first storm – and romantic and symbolic: the combination is a large part of their charm. The two-ton Fresnel lens at the top floats on a bath of mercury; according to our guide it was brain poisoning, not isolation, which posed a danger to the keeper’s sanity.

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3 responses to “Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse

  1. The two-ton Fresnel lens at the top floats on a bath of mercury; according to our guide it was brain poisoning, not isolation, which posed a danger to the keeper’s sanity.

    The first three keepers of the lighthouse on Rottnest Island off the Perth coast, which also suspended (and possibly still suspends) its lamp in mercury, took their own lives. All three died by suicide from the top of the structure, commonly presumed to be a result of insanity induced by mercury poisoning.

    Random mercury poisoning factoid: this stuff is very scary.

  2. Wow. We walked almost all the way to the big lighthouse on Rottnest (the one on the high point in the middle of the island, not the smaller one in the harbour facing Perth).

    I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s still using a mercury bath. The only major changes to how the Leeuwin light works are that the kerosene lamp they were using up until the early 80s (!) has been replaced by a pair of halogen floodlamps, and the optic is now turned by a small electric motor.

    Originally it was turned by a clockwork mechanism which was powered by a weight descending the height of the tower, like a big grandfather clock. The keeper on duty had to stay at the top so that he could wind the weights back up and keep it turning. And make sure the lamp stayed lit.

    Come to think of it, a big kerosene mantle would have kept the place warm enough to vaporise plenty of the mercury.

    I think dimethylmercury has now taken the place of sarin as my least favourite chemical.

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