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A Guide to the World’s Lighthouses

Lighthouses are among the most fascinating of mankind’s inventions – and also one of the most important, with a long and varied history. Meant to protect ships from crashing into unseen coasts or rocks, ancient lighthouses were simple wooden towers topped by fires that burned in the open. Though these were difficult to keep lit, they were used by the Greeks and Romans across their vast empires. Gradually, architects of the middle ages and Renaissance started to favor dressed stone towers topped by lamps, candles, or coal-burning fires for light, shielding the beacon’s lamp with a roof. In colonial times, lighthouses became more important than ever, ensuring safe trade and passage around the New World. Lighthouse keepers had a solemn duty to tend the lighthouses throughout the night, keeping detailed records of the weather, fuel used, and more. They would hand their work down through generations.

In all lighthouses, the light source was placed at the top of the structure and focused through a “lens” that projected it out to sea. A service room for the lighthouse keeper was traditionally placed below the light source, and an observation balcony encircled all or part of the lighthouse’s peak. Because a coast could be treacherous for many miles, lighthouses were often built in a “range light” configuration, where pairs of towers would illuminate a safe route to harbor. From antiquity, lighthouses were placed on shores and cliffs, occupying high ground whenever possible, so they could be seen at great distances. But early lighthouses would often be destroyed by tides, fires, or other hazards, and it was impossible to build lights on the open sea until 1611. Not until 1782 did sturdy mason construction allow tapered lighthouses to rely on their bulk for safety in a storm. Soon, smokeless, oil-burning wick lamps came into use, improving efficiency.

The development of the Fresnel lens in 1823 was a turning point for lighthouse technology. Using the new lens and several hollow wick lanterns, it was possible to beam light many miles out to sea. Long-burning lard oil replaced whale oil, helping to make the light source steady, clean, and dependable. At the same time, construction in cast iron and concrete made disasters far less likely. In the U.S., the new Lighthouse Board provided a strong civil service for lighthouse construction, developed light signals to inform ships of their precise location, and trained lighthouse keepers. By 1885, near the end of the Lighthouse Board’s existence, the Statue of Liberty became the first U.S. lighthouse to use electricity for its beacon. This was the beginning of rapid changes for maritime light technology: over the next hundred years, lighthouses were increasingly automated, and high-tech strobe lights replaced lenses. Now, modern global positioning technology has made many lighthouses obsolete. Only one lighthouse in the United States – Boston Light, the first – is still manned. Though the era of the intrepid lighthouse keeper has passed, many lighthouses from throughout history still stand around the world, greeting ships with a reminder of their mystique and wonder. It may be possible that you can support a non-profit responsible for the maintenance and operation of lighthouses by donating a car, motorhome or no-longer needed boat or yacht.

For more on great lighthouses around America and the world, see the following sites:

Famous U.S. Lighthouses

Famous International Lighthouses

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