Digest>Archives> March 2005

Robert Foulis

Inventor of the Steam Foghorn - Nearly Lost in the Pages of Time

By Doug Scott

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New Brunswick's first light station was built on ...

In 1859, the world became a lot safer for mariners. This was the year the world’s first steam – powered fog alarm was installed on Partridge Island in the harbor of Saint John, New Brunswick. Until this time ships’ captains had to rely on the somewhat ineffective and archaic use of cannons and fog bells to guide them into the world’s harbors in foggy weather. But all this changed with the development of the steam – powered fog alarm. This quote from Captain Winchester of the steamer, Eastern City, was typical of the respect this new invention was gaining from seamen; “On the whole coast of America there is not another alarm equal to the one spoken of…”

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The third Partridge Island Lighthouse as it ...

The inventor of the steam powered fog alarm was Robert Foulis, a brilliant engineer and a true Renaissance man. Born in Scotland, he immigrated to Canada in 1818. He was at various times throughout his life a portrait painter, a teacher and a land surveyor. He opened an iron foundry. He established a School of Arts. He lectured on chemistry. He surveyed the upper section of the St. John River. He worked as an engineer on a river steamer. He worked mining leases. But his greatest contribution to the world and what brought him his greatest fame, is the invention of the steam-powered fog alarm, a device that has saved the lives of literally thousands of seamen. Foulis’ revolutionary concept worked by piping high-pressure steam through a nozzle, emitting a loud, deep tone which could be heard for miles. He further refined his idea so that the repetition of the tones would be timed and each alarm would have a distinct frequency, so ships’ captains would be able to determine which alarm they were hearing simply by timing the sound.

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Plaque on Partridge Island honoring the first ...

The location of the first fog alarm was Partridge Island, a 25-acre outcrop just one kilometer from Saint John’s busy and often fog – enshrouded harbor. Located almost directly in the shipping lane, this harbor sentinel has served the active port of Saint John as a light station, a military fort and a quarantine station. In fact New Brunswick’s first lighthouse was built on Partridge Island in 1791 and a beacon has shone from there ever since. In 1785 Partridge Island became one of the first quarantine stations in North America. Between then and the time it was closed in 1942, thousands of immigrants destined for the New World were processed there before moving on to make their lives in other parts of Canada and the U.S. The long and remarkable history of Partridge Island also has a dark side. At least two dozen ships have foundered here, many because of dense fog.

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Photograph of Partridge Island Lighthouse as it ...

The idea of installing a steam – activated fog alarm came to Foulis in 1853, while he was supervising the conversion of the Partridge Island light from oil to gas. Unfortunately his powers of persuasion were not as advanced as his engineering skills. When he presented his idea to the authorities, they preferred to invest their resources into the development of a fog bell, thinking this was the way of the future. It was not until 1858 that the Commissioner of Lights, Isaac Woodward, finally asked Foulis for detailed plans of his steam whistle. Woodward then delivered them to another man, Vernon Smith, who was awarded the contract to install the fog alarm in 1859. Understandably, Foulis was enraged that his invention had been so blatantly stolen and he began a letter writing campaign to the New Brunswick legislature to gain recognition for his invention. This recognition did not come until 1864, and not until the newspaper, the Morning News, publicly took up his cause. Although the government of New Brunswick did finally acknowledge Robert Foulis as the inventor of the fog alarm, they weren’t as free with financial compensation. Robert Foulis received nothing but the gratitude of mariners for his invention. While Foulis was engaged in proving ownership of the fog alarm, an American, Claude Dobell, patented the device and it was he who received any financial benefit from the invention. Foulis died penniless on January 26, 1866, at the age of 69. He was buried in Saint John, New Brunswick in an unmarked grave.

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Partridge Island Lighthouse as it appeared in ...

In 1925, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada recognized the important contribution made by Robert Foulis and installed a commemorative plaque on Partridge Island.

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Photograph of the Gas House on Partridge Island, ...

For close to 140 years the brooding but comfortable sound of the Partridge Island fog alarm could be heard on foggy days throughout the Saint John area. But over time radar and Loran replaced the foghorn as the mariner’s coastal guardian and the fog alarm became redundant. In 1998, the Canadian Coast Guard decided that the useful life of the alarm on Partridge Island was over and it was finally turned off for good.

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In 1969, the Canadian Coast Guard launched the ...

Today, Partridge Island is a quiet and empty place. The wooden buildings that were once schools, troop barracks, hospitals and lighthouse keeper’s homes, and were part of the long and important history of Saint John, have been burned by vandals and subsequently demolished. The island is now off limits to visitors because of the fear of toxins in the soil from the coal ash that has been dumped there over the years. It really is a shame that an island so full of history is now ignored.

This story appeared in the March 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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