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Lighthouses: A Reference Guide

Lighthouses are a dying breed. Ships feared dark coastlines and relied on lighthouses to keep them safe from dangerous rocks. Today with GPS and other technologies, fewer ships need them so new lighthouse construction is extremely rare.

From candle-powered and manned lighthouses thousands of years ago to the modern, stand-alone LED lighthouses of today, it has been an interesting evolution for the coastline protectors of the world. What follows is a chronicle of important lighthouses in history.

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History

Perhaps the most famous lighthouse is also one of the oldest. The Lighthouse of Alexandria (above) was estimated to have been built around 280 BC on the island of Pharos, and because it stood as the tallest man-made structure on Earth for many centuries it is also cited as one of the classic Seven Wonders of the World. The Romans adopted the idea and began building lighthouses at each of their major ports.

The oldest Roman lighthouse still in use today is the Tower of Hercules (below). Located along the Northern coast of Spain, this structure is thought to be about 1900 years old with the first references in literature occurring sometime around 415 AD. An interesting side note is the Romans thought this part of Spain was the end of the Earth, as this was long before the days of Magellan and Columbus.

(Click thumbnails to enlarge)

   

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As navigation improved, lighthouses began appearing outside of the Mediterranean Sea. China’s Tang and Song dynasties built lighthouses as well, erected around 785 and 1165 AD, respectively. Perhaps the oldest & most famous lighthouse in Asia, the Liuhe Pagoda (at left), was originally built for surveying and to act as a lookout. From the beginning it was used as a lighthouse, however, due to its convenient placement along the shores of the Qiantang River. The Liuhe was originally constructed in 970 AD, destroyed during battle in 1121, and then rebuilt by the Southern Song Dynasty in 1165.

One of the oldest lighthouses in Europe is the Hook Lighthouse (below) in County Wexford, Ireland. Hook Lighthouse, believed to have been constructed in 1245, also holds the distinction of being the oldest operating lighthouse in the British Isles. The circular structure still stands today as it did almost 800 years ago

By 1481 the French erected the Cordouan Lighthouse (at right), their first. There were several iterations of the Cordouan over a hundred years, but the version you see today was finished in 1611. In 1531 Estonia had the Kopu Lighthouse erected. It is the third oldest lighthouse in the world and is still in use today.

In 1609, the British finished their first lighthouse at Trinity House. The earliest lighthouse built in North America was in 1586 near St. Augustine, Florida, however this lighthouse is no longer there. The oldest still-standing lighthouse in the United States is the Sandy Hook Lighthouse in New Jersey, built in 1764. Incidentally, this lighthouse is still in operation.

By the end of the 19th century, the United States had more lighthouses than any other nation.

Kopu & Sandy Hook lighthouses

Innovation

Lighthouse technology got a boost in 1822 with the invention of the Fresnel lens by Frenchman Augustin-Jean Fresnel. He developed a glass lens that could refract 85% of light versus typical standard-pane designs which directed about 20%. The first lighthouse to use the Fresnel lens was the Cordouan Lighthouse, and it was said the light could be seen from more than 20 miles (32 km) away.

1st order Fresnel lens

Construction Advancements

It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century lighthouses saw further construction advancements. Prefabricated skeletal iron and steel was now used to help lighthouses withstand more of the elements. By the late 20th century, computers crept into lighthouses removing the requirements of manning them. Of course along with lighthouse advancements were other technology advancements, such as GPS navigation and depth finders. By the time construction methods to withstand the elements were perfected, lighthouses started to become superfluous in the marine landscape.

The last manned lighthouse built in the United States was the Charleston Light (left), constructed in 1962. Built to modern specifications, it looks like an airport control tower. The Charleston Light is also the only U.S. lighthouse to have an elevator.

Superlatives:

Tallest in the world: Jeddah Light (436 ft/133 m), Saudi Arabia (below)

Tallest in the United States: Perry Memorial Monument (352 ft/107 m)

Perhaps the most famous lighthouse picture is the one of La Jument in Brittany, France, taken by Jean Guichard (right, and at top of article). This famous picture was taken in 1989 during a helicopter trip specifically for picture-taking. The lighthouse keeper was aware of a storm and thought the photographer’s helicopter was a rescue chopper so he came out to see. Don’t fret about his fate, however; according to multiple sources he immediately closed the lighthouse door and was fine.

The Jeddah Light, tallest lighthouse in the world

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Waves crashing featuring several French lighthouses:

The sequence of photos of La Jumet on youtube:

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  1. king_hil
    December 3, 2011 at 19:44

    great info-digging!! it’s interesting to see the variation in design in lighthouses from different nations.

    now imagine the fresnel lens at the disco! crazzzyyy!! :D

  2. Brandi Chim
    February 27, 2013 at 22:26

    Some genuinely nice and useful information on this site.

  3. March 30, 2013 at 02:45

    I’ve seen this pic. a thousand times, I even printed a black and white copy. I’ve pic myself in it, I always thought it was a normal event. It is a very mysterious scene.

    • April 1, 2013 at 20:24

      I have a large framed print of that picture as a matter of fact! I’m a fan. :-)

  4. May 13, 2013 at 15:50

    I so love lighthouses. Wonderful article.

  5. Darrin
    November 28, 2013 at 05:56

    Check out the history of Bell Rock lighthouse. It was built miles into the sea out of interlocking stone!

    • December 1, 2013 at 15:51

      Good call Darrin, thanks for pointing that out. I definitely neglected that one and will need to amend this post. Bell Rock has a great history for sure!

      • darrin
        December 1, 2013 at 15:58

        Yep, I geeked out on it upon discovering its existence. There is an hour documentary on it. Really quite fascinating.

        They had to start building it at low tide and only at a certain time of year. The first few courses of stone puzzle pieces got washed away a couple times. After it got tall enough, the weight of the tower above finally made it so that the ocean couldn’t wash it away.

        They constructed a temporary shelter on stilts. I think it was for housing workers during high tide. But that too got washed away if I remember correctly.

        It is absolutely amazing that they succeeded in building a lighthouse on a submerged rock, miles out at sea!

        • December 1, 2013 at 16:13

          That is amazing. I’m going to have to track down this documentary. Sounds like it’s right in my wheelhouse.

          • darrin
            December 1, 2013 at 16:13

            You’ve probably already found the official website, but here’s the link for anyone interested. Quite a bit of info!

            http://www.bellrock.org.uk/lighthouse/

            • December 1, 2013 at 16:15

              Thanks for the link :)

            • darrin
              December 1, 2013 at 16:20

              Aha, the documentary is a National Geographic Channel program called “The Miracle Lighthouse”. Just search for that on youtube, it is divided into five 10-minute parts. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1kG3D1tjgqY)

              Enjoy! I’m sure you’re about to spend the rest of the night watching and reading about Bell Rock Lighthouse. ;-)

  6. August 10, 2014 at 12:12

    Exciting photos of lighthouses around the world – http://allfreefoto.ru/5804-fotografii-mayakov.html

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