Historical Information On Light Houses

Throughout history, lighthouses have been an important safety device for seafaring people. A guide to the evolution of this process, explanation of technology as well as stories of ships.

The lighthouse keeper at Plum Island, Massachusetts had been monitoring his post faithfully for months on end. Throughout that entire time there were no incidents that caused alarm - just the mindless monotony that is the lot of those who choose the loneliest job in the world. On December 22nd, 1839, a fair, sunny day, he decided that he could leave his post for a few hours to take his wife shopping. So the two of them left the tiny island in a rowboat, intent on returning before dark. But, while they were away a wind began to blow. A storm was coming, and fast. Before long the sky and the sea had transformed themselves into a gray, howling mass of rain, foam and spray. The keeper found himself off of his island and unable to get back, no matter how hard he tried. That night the lighthouse remained dark.

About midnight the ship Pocahontas was desperate to find the river and harbor entrance that was normally signalled by the lighthouse. The search was in vain. Before long the ship had struck a sand bar. It's back was broken and the ship sank with it's entire crew on board. Before dawn another ship, the Richmond Packer, heading for the same port, also encountered problems. This time, however, only one life was lost, that of the captain's wife.

This incident demonstrates the vital role played by the lighthouse keeper in the safety of seafarers. In the absence of beacon lights, countless number of ships at sea have come to grief. In fact many ships in ancient times would successfully negotiate the treacherous seas, only to encounter disaster when they tried to enter port. The most dangerous part of a journey was the last few miles, when the ship approached and finally sighted land.



The earliest mention of beacon lights is in the Illiad. The original beacons were nothing but huge fires of logs, sometimes kept in stone cairns, and later in big iron cages. They were, however, frequently allowed to burn out - with tragic consequences. The world's first true lighthouse was erected around 300 B.C.E., on the island of Pharos, at the entrance to the harbor of Alexandria, Egypt. It was an impressive masonry structure between 350 and 400 feet in height. It was, in fact, one of the original seven wonders of the world and lasted for 1,600 years until it was toppled by an earthquake.

The Romans erected about thirty lighthouses throughout their Empire. The fall of the Empire, however, saw a dramatic drop off in sea trade and the lighthouses fell into disrepair. The first lighthouse erected in the open sea was a wooden one built by Henry Winstanley in 1699. It was positioned in the midst of the treacherous Eddystone Rocks off Plymouth, England. Just four years later, however, a massive sea storm smashed his structure apart, destroying it along with its maker.

As lighthouse technology advanced the use of wood burning for purposes of illumination was replaced by coal, candles and oil. Parabolic reflectors were also introduced that could increase the light intensity up to 350 times. Then, in 1815, French physicist Augustin Jean-Fresnel invented an amazingly efficient lens which boosted the light output from 20,000 to over 80,000 candle power. Pressurized oil burners were introduced in 1901 and these boosted the power of the Fresnel unit to over one million candle power. Acetylene gas and electric filament lamps brought the technology of the lighthouse into the twentieth century. Today the most powerful lighthouse in the world emits a staggering 500 million candle power.

As demonstrated by our opening example, the lighthouse keeper was the vital human element that made the lighthouse technology work. But, with the advent of automated lighthouses, keepers have become increasingly redundant. Radar, radio, sonar and satellite navigation have taken over the lighthouse. To many people, though, lighthouses are a symbol of light and hope. In an attempt to preserve the heritage of the lighthouse many lighthouse societies have sprung up around the world. Some lighthouses now offer the public the opportunity to sample what it was like to live the life of a lighthouse keeper. Many enjoy the extreme solitude and excellent vantage point for observing whales, birds and seals - and the opportunity to reflect on those hardy, solitary men who were the keepers of the lighthouse.

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