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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Robert Louis Stevenson: Son of a Lighthouse Engineer


Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson was born on November 13, 1850. His father, Thomas Stevenson, and his grandfather, Robert Stevenson, were distinguished builders of lighthouses. Thomas wanted his son Robert to follow in the family tradition and study to become a lighthouse engineer. But young Robert did not have the aptitude or physical stamina for the profession. He had life-long respiratory problems, perhaps inherited from his mother.

Robert Louis Stevenson (he changed the spelling of his middle name from Lewis to Louis when he was 18) was always interested in literature. His father tried to discourage the boy but when Thomas saw that his son was not going to become an engineer he encouraged him to study law just to have a profession to fall back on. Young Stevenson completed his law studies at age 25 but he never practiced.

Robert Louis Stevenson translated his family's love for the sea into many of his stories and novels. He always felt proud to be part of such a strong technical tradition. In his essays, Memories and Portraits (1887), Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of his family:

[H]olding as the Stevensons did a Government appointment they regarded their original work as something due already to the nation, and none of them has ever taken out a patent. It is another cause of the comparative obscurity of the name: for a patent not only brings in money, it infallibly spreads reputation; and my father's instruments enter anonymously into a hundred light-rooms, and are
passed anonymously over in a hundred reports, where the least
considerable patent would stand out and tell its author's story.


Robert Louis Stevenson was quite correct about his father's contributions. Thomas Stevenson not only designed dozens of lighthouses and shore lights, he also invented the revolving light that allowed a beacon to give a time signal in addition to a location. This added significantly aided mariners to be certain of their position. Thomas Stevenson also invented the Stephenson Screen for enclosing meteorological instruments.

Robert Louis Stevenson never left the sea. His many novels and stories including Kidnapped and Treasure Island celebrate a nautical life that he learned as a young man at his father's side. Robert Louis Stevenson died in 1894 in Samoa at age 44 . Both he and his father changed the world in their own ways. But each provided light to the world.

[Image: Chicken Rock Lighthouse off the Isle of Man built by Thomas Stevenson in 1875. Image from Wikipedia]

1 comment:

Pauline Barrett said...

I'm doing a Historical Structures Report on a Seattle Lighthouse and as part of it am writing a brief history of navigational aids. Having just finished learning about the Fresnels, I am now "going cross the channel" into England to write about the Stevenson family. The question lingered in my mind... "is there a connection between the author and these guys?" But I don't have time right now to look it up. There's enough distraction with the local history end of things.

Thanks for providing an answer without my having to do anything.

I think I'll add your blog to my daily reading. Your philosophy sounds a bit like mine.

Pauline Barrett,
Kent, Washington