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Mistakes in the Mist: fog alarm technology and navigational failure in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, 1900-1925

Sat, March 28, 1:30 to 3:00pm, Delta Ottawa City Centre, Floor: Conference, Richelieu


This paper explores the development and installation of the diaphone, a steam-powered, piston driven fog alarm, at lighthouse stations in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence 1900 and 1925. Developed and patented by a Canadian manufacturer, the diaphone purported to offer a clearer sound than other types of alarms that could help mariners locate themselves more precisely in the precarious, foggy coastline of the northwestern Atlantic. The Canadian Department of Marine and Fisheries, convinced of the fiscal and mechanical efficiency of the new device, purchased and installed upwards of 50 in and around the Gulf. By investing in diaphones, the Canadian state could proclaim that it had done its part to provide effective navigational tools, shifting responsibility for safe navigation from coastal infrastructure to the senses of ship pilots. Its backers, however, did not account for the unpredictable nature of air, fog, and weather in the coastal environment – the very phenomena the diaphone was supposed to overcome – in their celebration of its effectiveness. Drawing from federal reports and commissions, state-sponsored physics studies, and insurance records, this paper traces the tandem development of both the diaphone and conceptual narratives of its efficiency and effectiveness. As both navigational and political technology, the diaphone refashioned foggy coastlines as rational, national space and reframed maritime disaster as episodic failures of human ears rather than the inability of state infrastructure to overcome the unpredictable littoral environment.