David Lyle

The Lyle Life Saving gun exhibit
CASE 78 showing the video kiosk in the background

Springfield Armory NHS, US NPS

David A. Lyle

After graduation from West Point in 1869, David Lyle, a specialist in ordnance, began his military career with duty at San Francisco’s Benecia Arsenal. When the Secretary of the Treasury, who was responsible for the Life Saving Service, asked for the Army’s assistance in improving lifesaving apparatus, Lyle was assigned the task “in addition to his regular duties.”

Lyle transferred to Springfield Armory where he spent two years reviewing and experimenting with the various devices available. By 1878 he had developed an accurate light weight gun which was put into service at lifesaving stations along the Nation’s coasts. As testimony to the effectiveness of Lyle’s work, it has been estimated that by 1906 the gun was responsible for saving approximately 4500 lives. Lyle’s life saving gun remained in production through World War II.

David Lyle was a person of varied interests. Although his best known contribution was the development of the life saving gun, he also published studies on the manufacture of leather, rasps and files, and scientific papers on ornithological and geological subjects.

David Lyle, 1870s
David Lyle, inventor of the Lyle
Life Saving" Gun

Springfield Armory NHS archives, US NPS

a Lyle Life Saving gun
The Life Saving Gun
Ships running aground in heavy seas could be lost within sight of safety, with the wild surf making rescue by small craft impossible. Soon after Congress authorized a Federal agency to operate coastal facilities in 1871, attention turned to making improvements in lifesaving apparatus. Assigned to this task, ordnance officer David A. Lyle developed a small cannon that shot a projectile, to which a light line was attached, to a stranded vessel. The ship’s crew pulled progressively heavier lines from shore or another ship; then a breeches buoy suspended from a rope carried one person at a time from the ship to safety.

Springfield Armory NHS, US NPS

Race Point light, Cape Cod, c1860
Race Point lighthouse, at the extreme tip of Cape Cod on the Massachusetts shore, provided one of the beacons to guide sailing vessels away from the shifting shoals off Cape Cod. Many hundreds of ships have wrecked along the sandy eastern coast of Cape Cod.

Courtesy: Leib Image Archive, York, PA [#PC131004]

Life Saving Service surf boat being hauled to the water
The U.S. Lifesaving Service, members of whome are shown above hauling a surf boat across the beach about 1900, was founded in 1871. In 1939, it was merged into the U.S. Coast Guard.

Courtesy: Madison Bay Company, East Berlin, PA [#PC136502]

THE LIFE LINE, by Winslow Home, 1884
When this painting, not displayed in the exhibit, was finished in 1884, it created a sensation. Homer depicted a woman overwhelmed, her rescuer’s face obscured, by the power of the wind and sea. In 1884, images of women with wet clinging dresses and exposed knees were usually excluded from any reputable gallery, but not so with this painting.  The Life Line records Homer’s real life experience on the coast of Maine observing the newly-invented Lyle Life Saving gun in use. Notice the breeches buoy and the block and tackle system employed to carry the wreck victims to the safety of shore.

The Life Line, by Winslow Homer,
Oil on canvas
29 x 45 in
Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Lyle gun used in nearby Chocopee in 1936
Lyle Gun in action !!
During the great 1936 flood, when the Connecticut River flooded Springfield and communities throughout the valley, the Lyle Lifesaving Gun helped establish communications by throwing lines to pull phone line across the swollen rivers, as recorded at the time in this local newspaper article.

Springfield Republican newspaper, 1936

Lyle gun today
The Lyle gun in use today !!
In this newspaper image from nearly seventy years after the 1936 flood, the Lyle Lifesaving Gun still booms. In this case, it is seen during an intensive PArk Ranger training program in its use by the US National Park Service. The Lyle gun is demonstrated weekly each summer at Race Point by the US NPS on Cape Cod National Sea Shore.

Cape Cod Times newspaper, June 24, 2005

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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