By Erika Tauer, Old North Illuminated Administrative Coordinator
Sifting through a filing cabinet of old photographs and documents brought to light a story that has been forgotten by most people, even at Old North. Two newspaper clippings had been saved — the first from a newsletter once issued by the vicars of Old North, and the second from The Boston Sunday Herald, both detailing the incredible 1976 project to harness light from a star 200 light-years away to illuminate the replica lanterns hanging in the Old North Church for the Bicentennial.
The inventive idea was first proposed by D. Wilson Benware, an amateur astronomer in California, to the Hawai’i Bicentennial Commission. But it was astronomer Dr. Sidney Wolff whose efforts at the University of Hawai’i’s Mauna Kea Observatory brought the star, Epsilon Lyrae, into focus. At the time, the Mauna Kea Observatory was the highest in the world at an elevation of 13,796 feet. In fact, Dr. Wolff arrived a day early to allow herself to adjust to the high altitude.
At 11:13pm on July 3, atop the highest peak in Hawai’i, Wolff focused the Epsilon Lyrae’s light onto the sensors attached to Mauna Kea’s 88-inch telescope. The electronic sensors converted the star’s light energy into electrical impulses for transmission from Hawai’i to Boston by telephone, as the project was sponsored by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. Wolff allowed 200 impulses to build up before relaying the signal to Boston. From the observatory on Maui, the signal traveled to the island of Oahu by microwave radio, and then by communications satellite to the mainland. As described in The Old North Steeple: “From the West Coast, the signal was fed into the telephone network and crossed the country by both underground cable and microwave radio signal,” adding that “it took one-third of a second for Epsilon Lyrae’s energy to travel the last 5,600 miles of its 200-year journey.”
Meanwhile in Boston, the Rev. Dr. Robert Golledge, the vicar of Old North Church, curator Gladstone Millett, and sexton Albert Mostone gathered in the steeple of Old North at dawn on July 4. At 5:13am EDT the Rev. Golledge placed a long-distance phone call to Mauna Kea, allowing the starlight signal to connect and light the lanterns. Describing the moment, Golledge stated: “I made the call and boom, the lights came on. I literally felt the surge of power.”
The star’s light not only lit the two replica lanterns, for the historic “two if by sea” lantern signal, but also a third lantern that had been lit by President Gerald Ford the year prior for the 200th anniversary of the signals. Rev. Golledge had said: “The lighting of the third lantern signifies our hope that the American promise will come true during the third century…the first two lanterns gave us some hope but we needed a new signal to call us to renewed effort in the centuries ahead.” In The Old North Steeple, Golledge continued: “The two lanterns which once shone form this steeple led us to two centuries of some progress in reason, in liberty, and in faith, but not enough; to some fulfillment in mind, in body, and in spirit, but not enough; to some gains in thinking, acting, and trusting in freedom, but not enough. Now after these two centuries, who will say that the American Promise has come true? The American promise has not come true. But we believe in it, and we will not be discouraged.”
Almost fifty years later, Golledge’s words still provoke reflection and challenge us to consider what we may each do as active citizens to turn these ideals into reality. In the Third Lantern Garden at Old North, the description beneath the lantern reads: “We will yet make the American promise a reality. We will yet make it the Truth everyday, everywhere, for everybody. We will go forward and we will stumble. But we will try again, and again, and again.”
While this was not the first time star light had been utilized for national celebratory purposes (light from a star was used to open the Chicago World Fair in 1933), the use of starlight to illuminate the lanterns at Old North seems particularly spectacular and appropriate. Light from Epsilon Lyrae had begun traveling to Earth about the same time that the founders were signing the Constitution in 1776, thus linking “not only two eras in time, but also the newest state in the nation and the cradle of the revolution as well.”
As Old North celebrates its 300th birthday and begins to prepare for the 250th anniversary of the hanging of the lanterns in 2025, the story of the starlight-powered lanterns of 1976 reminds us that the need to illuminate our history remains. It reminds us that we too have yet to achieve the American promise more than two centuries after the lanterns were hung and the American Revolution had begun.
“Star Lights Lantern.” The Old North Steeple, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Autumn 1976): 4.
“Unique Lighting Illuminates Old North Church.” Boston Sunday Herald. July 4, 1976.
Rev. Robert W. Golledge. “Bicentennial Launched: Vicar Proclaims New Signal.” The Old North Steeple, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Bicentennial 1975): 2.
“A Star for Paul Revere.” The Honolulu Advertiser. July 1, 1976. p. 10. Accessed June 13, 2023.
Bowman, Pierre. “Getting Lost in the Stars.” Honolulu Star Bulletin. July 5, 1976. p. 17. Accessed June 13, 2023. https://www.newspapers.com/image/271694988/?terms=%22Old%20North%20Church%22%20star&match=1
“Lanterns lit by star’s 1776 light.” The Boston Globe. July 5, 1976. p. 8. Accessed June 13, 2023.