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History of Lighthouses & Famous Lighthouses in the UK and US

written by: •edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 2/8/2013

The history of lighthouses can be traced back to Egyptian times. Before that the vegetation around dangerous headlands used to be set afire to warn sailors of nearby dangers. Lighthouses are built on rocky outcrops, Islands, and harbors and as a visual forewarning of hidden rocks and shallows.

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    The History of Lighthouses

    The Egyptians were the first people to employ the use of constructed tall lighthouses, some standing for over 1000 years. The warning beacon was a fire set atop of the construction, kept burning during the night by the very first lighthouse keepers.

    Other nations soon followed suit until today we have many hundreds of lighthouses around the world. These buildings and their brave keepers serve a very important function in saving the ships and sailors of many nations from coming to grief on an angry shoreline or outcrop of rocks.

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    Overview of the Lighthouse

    The Egyptians were the first nation to use tower-type lighthouses. The UK and the US were also involved in lighthouse construction, often carried out in wild conditions being constantly lashed by seas and winds. There are many fine early examples of early lighthouses built by brave men, many still existing and operating today.

    The warning light was the most important component of the lighthouse. The first sources of lights were beacons in which fires were burned. These were open at the top to provide ventilation and were tended by the lighthouse keeper.

    Next were the candles and various oil burners using a wick; the Argand Wick Lamp consisted of two glass cylinders covering the wick to promote a steadier flame that was visible for several miles.

    The French Scientist Augustine Fresnel invented the modern Fresnel lens in 1822, being first used in a lighthouse in 1841 and the forerunner of the modern lenses in use today.

    An early and modern Fresnel lens is shown below:

    Fresnel lighthouse lens diagram showing mirror locations m and n from Wiki Commons by Adolphe Ganot 

    Cape Otway Lighthouse Fresnel lens from Wiki Commons by Stephen Bain 

    Modern day lighthouses have their own characteristic light patterns. These are made up of the number of flashes, their exposure time, and the time between flashes. These characteristics are noted on navigation charts alongside the name of the lighthouse, assisting in the confirmation of a ships position from the pattern of the flashes and location of the lighthouse.

    Lighthouse Keepers

    The lighthouse keepers’ job was a lonely one. They were required to stay on the lighthouses for long periods before being relieved. This spell of duty was often extended if bad weather prevented his replacement from making it onto the often inaccessible lighthouse locations.

    The lighthouse keepers duties included tending to the light source and operating audible alarms such as foghorns or even firing cannons during fog or bad visibility. Today, most lighthouses are unmanned and automatically controlled by various Government boards and departments who are responsible for their monitoring, upkeep and maintenance.

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    U.K. Lighthouses

    Beachy Head lighthouse from Wiki Commons by Kevin Walsh 

    The UK was famous for building lighthouses, mainly due to it being an island and surrounded by sea with many dangerous, rocky coasts. They depended upon safe navigation of these dangerous waters to allow the foreign and coastal shipping to its numerous seaports in order to sustain its population.

    There are many fine examples of lighthouses around Britain:

    The Eddystone Rock Lighthouse was the first lighthouse to be constructed on the English coast, and is regarded as one of the most famous lighthouses in the world. There were four replacement lighthouses built on the perilous Eddystone Rock located 13 miles south of Plymouth.

    Scalpay Eilean Glas lighthouse from Wiki Commons by Chris McLean 

    Plymouth was one of the Royal Navy’s premier dockyards, therefore a safe passage to this major naval port was essential to the nation’s security.

    The first Eddystone Rock Lighthouse was completed in 1698 of conical design and constructed from wood. This was replaced by a more substantial octagonal one, but this burned down due to a fire in the lantern section. The next one was designed and built by John Seaton, and was to revolutionize future lighthouse design and construction, being made from interlocking stone blocks. A quick-drying cement was developed by Seaton for these blocks that is still in use today.

    Eddystone Lighthouse from Wiki Commons by Jaho 

    The present lighthouse was built by James Douglass in 1882 based very much on Seaton’s design and construction methods and is still operating. It has the distinction of being the first offshore lighthouse to be automated by Trinity House in 1982.

    Trinity House was founded in 1514 by Royal Charter (King Henry VIII) to oversee the safe pilotage of ships passage through “His Majesties realm of Great Britain and Ireland."

    Later on in 1836 the responsibility for lighthouse around the coast also became part of their maritime responsibility. At present HRH Duke of Edinburgh is the Master of Trinity House.

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    U.S. Lighthouses

    Portland Head Light from Wiki Comons by Justin Russell 

    There are many fine lighthouses constructed by American engineers:

    The Boston Light situated on Brewster Island in Boston Harbor was the first US lighthouse built in 1716. It was replaced in 1783 and still remains in position having the honor of being the second oldest working lighthouse in the United States... and the only one still staffed. (The lighthouse was changed to automatic operation, but is also overseen by US Coast Guards and a band of very keen volunteers.)

    The disbanding of the lighthouse administration by the Department of Treasury’s Lighthouse Establishment led to The United States Lighthouse Board being created in 1852 to manage US lighthouses.

    Sambro Island Lighthouse, near Halifax, Nova Scotia, the oldest surviving lighthouse in North and South America. Cannons in the foreground were once used as fog warnings from Wiki Commons by letterofmarque 

    Boston Light on Little Brewster Island from Wiki Commons by Doc Searls 

    The board was quick to implement new technology to the lighthouses under its jurisdiction, the installation of the Fresnel lens being an example of this. The board was also very keen to use the latest wrought and cast iron straight piles to support their lighthouses and quickly changed to the new screwpile invented by Alexander Mitchell in 1820’s. These had a screw cast onto the ends of the piles and were screwed into soft muddy bottoms of seabeds and swamps, using a 4’ capstan. The first screwpile lighthouse was built in Delaware Bay by Major Hartman Basche, an engineer with the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, and was completed in 1850.

    The jobs of the lighthouse keepers on these lighthouses were made a bit more hospitable to them by often having their wife and family on board, as this design was more like a conventional house on stilts than a lighthouse.

    An example of this type of lighthouse is shown below:

    Sketch of a Screwpile Lighthouse from Wiki Commons by Caltrop 

    Note:

    A common lighthouse construction material in the UK and USA was stone such as granite. These stones were used because of their durability, weight, density, and ability to be cut to shape without splitting or crumbling, all necessary properties required to fashion interlocking blocks.

    Websites Visited:

    1. govmaritime: Screwpile lighthouses.
    2. eddystoneeel: Eddystone Lighthouse.
    3. lighthouseinfo: Boston Light.
    4. uklighthousinfo: UK Lighthouses.