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A lighthouse is typically understood to be a tower near the seaside with a bright, shining light at the top, which acts as a beacon for nearby ships.
Here we delve into the history of the noble lighthouse, following its path over thousands of years, up until the present. Use the following table to navigate this article.
Table of Contents:
- The Pharos of Alexandria
- Pre-historical lighthouses
- The Eddystone Lighthouse
- Pre-modern and modern lighthouses
- The changing relationship between ships and lighthouses
- The lighthouse keeper’s lot
- Methods of communication between sea and shore
- Video resources / recommended viewing
Let’s dive in!
The Pharos of Alexandria
The history of the lighthouse structure as we know it today dates back to before the age of Christ, with the Lighthouse of Alexandria (aka Pharos of Alexandria) in Egypt, being the first renowned lighthouse to be created, around 250 BC, during the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus.
If you’ve never been to Alexandria, here’s a map showing where it is, in case you’ve ever wanted to go there!
The Pharos of Alexandria stood around 330 feet tall (about 100 metres), and stood as a wonder of the ancient world for centuries until a series of earthquakes over the centuries damaged it, and finally laid it to ruin in the 1300’s.
In more recent times, the Egyptian government has claimed that they will rebuild this lighthouse (read more here), although the original is still a sunken remnant at the bottom of the sea.
Prior to that, lighthouses, in one form or another, existed as huge pyres, burning brightly on the shore lines of the world, or in and around interior waterways, guiding ships to their destination.
It may have looked something like this, although this is a photo of some folks having a beach party.
Of course, there were many reasons to create a pyre other than leading ships to shore, but, at some juncture, lost now to time, some sensible soul had the idea to use pyres specifically to guide ships, rather than to use it as a party attraction for some solstice celebration on the beach.
That said, whether a community used a pyre or something more, it depending on their level of wealth. Sometimes, a pyre with fragments of wood was all that could be mustered. Any kind of construction required manpower and resources, which were not always available or affordable.
The Romans, blessed with wealth at the time, set up many lighthouse towers in the extending of their empire, and up until 400 AD there were about 30 lighthouses from the Black Sea to the Atlantic.
This list includes a famous lighthouse at Ostia (at the port of Rome), constructed in 50 CE, and lighthouses located in France, England, Boulogne, and Dover. A fragment of the actual Roman lighthouse at Dover still exists.
Over the years, archeologists have discovered the remains of many of the lighthouses made by the ancient Romans.
The Phoenicians, selling their wares from the Mediterranean through to Great Britain, marked off their path with many lighthouses.
If they were of modest make, these old lighthouses had torches and wood fires burning in the open area, often protected by a stone ceiling. After the first century AD, oil lamps or candles were used with panes of glass in lanterns.
Over time, it seemed logical to raise the flames higher and higher off the ground (rather than building the fire to be bigger and bigger from the ground up), making it easier for ships to see the light of the fire.
This lead to actual large, wooden, or in some cases, stone, towers, with flames burning brightly atop them. Here below is an ancient Somalian lighthouse, made of stone and dozens of feet tall.
Here is another example of a lighthouse from Mul Dwarka, in India, which has been studied by marine archaeologists in an effort to understand trading posts better in ancient times.
The fall of commerce in the middle ages stopped lighthouse construction, until the revitalization of trade in Europe in 1100 AD.
France, Great Britain, and Italy, around this time, began producing lighthouses in greater numbers.
Also, references to lighthouses were now appearing on various charts, maps, and books of travel by 1500. By 1600, at least 3 dozen significant beacons were known in Europe.
A well-known lighthouse of this time was the Lantern of Genoa in Italy, established in 1139. It was reconstructed wholly in 1544 as the impressive tower that stays a blazing seaside marker today.
The custodian of the lighthouse was Antonio Columbo in 1449; uncle of the well-known historical figure, Christopher Columbus.
One earlier lighthouse was constructed in 1157 AD at Meloria, which was replaced by a lighthouse on a single rock at Livorno.
Meanwhile, in France, a Roman tower located at Boulogne was rebuilt in 800 by Emperor Charlemagne.
This tower survived until 1644 when it cracked, owing to an erosion of the cliff.
The most well-known French lighthouse of this era was one on the tiny island of Cordouan in the Estuary of the Gironde River, by Bordeaux.
Edward the Black Prince, constructed the original in the 14th century, which recalls a sad tale.
It took 27 years to construct the original lighthouse, while the island slowly sank into the sea, bit by bit. By the time the tower was completed in 1611, the island was entirely submerged in water.
Cordouan, therefore, became the first lighthouse to be constructed in the open sea, the real forerunner of such stone-carved lighthouses as the Eddystone Lighthouse.
With the help of the Hanseatic League, German and Scandinavian shores saw an increase in lighthouses around this time as well. At least 15 lighthouses were made by 1600, making it one of the best-lit regions of that time.
In addition, it was frequently the case that lights shining from churches and chapels on the shore often replaced lighthouses proper, specifically in Great Britain where there were many such structures.
That said, nothing was created to match the imperious majesty of the previously mentioned Lighthouse (Pharos) of Alexandria, created long before most of these lighthouses mentioned here.
The Pharos of Alexandria was done, as ancient Egyptians did things, in an impressive manner that was impossible to match, and still do this day, few lighthouses can match it’s grandeur.
Watch this video about the Lighthouse of Alexandria for more information on this ancient wonder.
After the Lighthouse of Alexandria fell, it was centuries until any lighthouses of note were made.
Presently, only a lighthouse like the Jeddah Lighthouse in Saudi Arabia can claim to be “bigger” than Alexandria’s lighthouse.
Let’s rewind now and return to where we were in our chronicle, sometime in the 1600’s.
The Eddystone Lighthouse
It wasn’t until the very late 1600’s that lighthouses, started to become what could be described as more “modern”.
For example, there was Henry Winstanley’s lighthouse at Eddystone Rocks, called the Eddystone Lighthouse, at Rame, Turpoint, England.
This was an octagonal wooden structure, and was steeped in turmoil until it was destroyed by the Great Storm of 1703, killing Henry Winstanley and the rest of the lighthouse crew, who were washed out to sea and never seen again.
And why not, this lighthouse was the first lighthouse to be built offshore in such a way that it was perched precariously on a rock in the sea.
The logic here, presumably, was that the further out the lighthouse was, the more effective it would be. This fact, while true, also comes with a certain volatility. Many lighthouses have copied this “offshore” model, building their lighthouses on some kind of abutment out at sea, but still close to shore.
Despite being located offshore in such a way, the Eddystone Lighthouse was an ornate structure which included a fifteen foot high lantern, not to mention 8 windows divided into 36 individual panes of glass. It was lit by 60 candles at a time.
At one point, during its construction, a French mariner came and took the owner, Winstanley, hostage, and then destroyed its foundation, which required it to be re-built.
This lighthouse was wracking up quite a bill for renovations, including a stone clad exterior at one point, which, ultimately, had sea farers stopping by to help pay for it literally one penny at a time – £7,814 7s.6d all told.
Watch this video for more information on the Eddystone Lighthouse. Quite fascinating!
Quite the story there. Share it with a friend! Onwards…
Pre-Modern and Modern Lighthouses
Perhaps Winstanley’s lighthouse taught the navigators of the day a lesson, as the majority of lighthouses to appear next were sturdier and, significantly, generally found to be on the shore, or at least closer to it, located at a high point if possible for better visibility.
The structure of lighthouses, too, underwent many modifications over the intervening years between then and now, becoming more sound, more aerodynamic, and much less likely for an errant wave or high winds to destroy it during a thunderstorm, since the disadvantage to being up high is to be buffeted in a worse way by the prevailing winds.
Still, lighthouses needed to be built near to the see, which makes them dangerous places to be sometimes, especially during a hurricane or violent storm. (La Corbière – pictured below)
One of the more famous lighthouses that came in more modern times is located in Florida and is located at St. Augustine. It was first lit in 1824, and is very much the prototypical lighthouse (pictured below).
Supernatural phenomena has been reported from this light house, and it has appeared on television on shows like Ghost Hunters, where people try to track this paranormal activity (look to the end of this article for a video about that).
In the 19th and 20th centuries, lighthouses became even more modern, and featured electronic components to provide automation, as well as more luminosity from the lights installed in these towers.
A typical 20th century lighthouse usually appeared as a single tower, more narrow at the top, and with a room that housed the light.
This light would shine, revolve, and often blink, providing sailors in modern times with a light that couldn’t be confused with anything else, as it beamed directly out to sea, or gave off some signal to indicate that it was something other than a natural occurrence.
This way, regardless of weather conditions, the light from a well-made lighthouse with a good working light would pierce through the fog, or be visible from a distance of miles out in a storm.
The sea, as any mariner knows, is not a place to take lightly, and so, having something they can depend on in the form of a light on the shore can save their lives, when certain inhospitable conditions arise at sea.
The Changing Relationship Between Ships and Lighthouses
In the first half of the 20th century, ships were nowhere near as sophisticated as they are today, and so they didn’t often have advanced electronic navigation systems to save them if things got rough on the water.
That said, they were beginning to develop these systems, and at this point, a marked decline in the use of the lighthouse as we know it truly began.
For instance, this 1920’s mercantile ship (pictured below) was very advanced for its day, and wasn’t a ship that relied on lighthouses to guide it in to shore.
That said, for ships that were used to visiting one particular destination repeatedly, the familiar beam of light from a familiar lighthouse was a re-assurance that – yes – they were heading in the right direction.
For ships new to an area, the lighthouse was a welcoming beacon to let them know they had almost arrived.
All in all, modern lighthouses were and are designed with practicality in mind, to be visible from as far out to see as one might reasonably expect, using all the lessons of history (ideally) to inform them on where, when, and how to construct it and what jobs it will be able to reasonably perform.
At the same time, ships were quickly becoming more advanced, due to frequent wars at sea, and the need for lighthouses was not as needed as it once was, putting some lighthouse keepers out of work.
Speaking of the lighthouse keepers themselves, what did their job specifically involve?
The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lot
One job that was given to your average lighthouse keep, that has held true through the ages, is that the lighthouse’s beaming light must always be functional (meaning lit and operational), at least during seasons when ships are coming and going.
Perhaps this would exclude winter, when a water could presumably be frozen over.
The light from a lighthouse wasn’t simply reserved for rare occasions like storms or foggy days, but the silent vigil of the lighthouse must be maintained all the time.
A lighthouse interior includes more than just a stairwell leading to the actual mechanism of the light itself.
The lighthouse station also includes keeper’s residence, often part the lighthouse interior itself, but sometimes there as a separate residence.
With regards to actual tower that houses the light, there’s also the outer deck, as well as the room which contains mechanism of the light, which must be tended to.
There is also the property in and around the lighthouse, all of which the lighthouse keeper was saddled with, in order to keep it maintained.
It was often solitary but important work.
Methods of Communication Between Sea and Shore
It should be noted that a lighthouse isn’t always communicating strictly with it’s light alone.
Lighthouses are usually equipped with ability to send and receive coded radio signals, like morse code and other nautical signals coming from approaching ships.
The evolution of electronic navigation systems have had a profound and rather permanent effect on the purpose of lighthouses in today’s modern world.
Powerful lights housed in a tower are becoming more and more rare, particularly for guiding ships to landfall.
In the stead of lone lighthouse towers tended to by one or two occupants, there has been much progress in the creation and development of lighted buoys and other such device, which can now be found in certain harbours as an alternative to lighthouses.
Here are some examples of eco-friendly lighted buoys and aquatic markers.
Some ports have their reasons for using or not using such buoys, and continuing to rely on a lighthouse. However, it is certainly true that lighthouses are growing more and more uncommon as their purpose has been deemed redundant.
In some cases, lighthouses are now in part or exclusively used as tourist attractions for people to visit and enjoy as a historical curiosity.
In a way, this money coming from tourists keeps some lighthouses alive, as they may not actually be used for nautical navigation anymore. They are at times, in this day and age, simply a way to engage tourists.
The disappearance of lighthouses on the whole also has to do with the fact that today’s boats, whether they be battleships, cruise liners, fishing trawlers, or smaller privately-owned recreational vessels, now come equipped with systems that can guide them where they need to go without the help of a lighthouse.
Here is an example of a nautical bridge on a modern naval vessel.
Still, amongst more traditional mariners, there is a natural priority for the reassurance of an external optical navigation, and lighted markers also hold the benefits of low cost, simplicity, and reliability. But a lighthouse, should it be there waiting, is generally welcomed by most mariners regardless.
One advantage of a lighthouse is that it can be used by vessels with no extra equipment on board, providing reliable support against the failure of a more delicate system.
Because of their reliant nature, not to mention’s peoples’ recognition that lighthouses have saved so many human lives over the centuries, and now millennia, means that although lighthouses are perhaps not as popular as they once were, they are still far from being gone forever.
Here is a great storybook for kids called “The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch” by Ronda and David Armitage. Show it to your kids!
Here’s an episode of Ghost Hunters which apparently contains some strange activities.
This is a fascinating documentary, check it out. It’s called A Lighthouse Keeper’s Story.
More from the documentary on lighthouses.
More info in this video about the Lighthouse of Alexandria.