In early human history, darkness was very frightening. Wild animals and our enemies could kill us more easily in the darkness. We hid in our caves and waited for the light. The idea of light, or fire, cutting through the darkness, is a common one in various cultures and religions. We eventually learned to light fires to illuminate our caves or campgrounds at night, but as we started venturing out on the seas in boats, the idea of being out in the darkness was scary.
The first navigators traveled mainly during the day. As mariners ventured out more at night, some learned to plot their course by the movement of the stars and constellations. But there was always the danger of running into hidden rocks, shoals, and other obstacles.
The origins of the lighthouse go back to simple bonfires built on beaches and hillsides in many cultures around the world. The Greeks built braziers filled with fire and put them on hillsides at the entrances to harbors and along navigation routes to guide mariners. The Greeks also built some of the earliest true lighthouses at least as early as the fifth century B.C.—basically columns surmounted by fires.
The world’s first great lighthouse, the Pharos of Alexandria, was built in the third century BC in the harbor at Alexandria, Egypt, a city that had been founded by Alexander the Great. It was built of giant blocks of limestone and had a furnace at the top, with the fire possibly magnified by a mirror. It stood more than 300 feet tall and is regarded as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
England and France were leaders in lighthouse construction for many years. Some of the world’s great wave-swept lighthouses are in the British Isles, including the famous towers at Eddystone and Bell Rock. When the first lighthouse in North America was built in Boston Harbor in 1716, there were still only a handful of lighthouses in the world. Today, most of the 10,000 or so lighthouses in the world are automated; only a small percentage of them still have resident keepers.
One of the most important advancements in the history of lighthouses was the invention of the Fresnel lens in France in the early 1820s. These glass lenses were constructed of many individual prisms that bent the light coming from a light source inside the lens into a powerful horizontal beam. Fresnel lenses, often called the “jewels of the lighthouses,” were eventually used around the world. Most have been replaced by modern equipment, but many Fresnel lenses are now displayed in museums as beautiful examples of functional art.
The struggle of nature vs. humans and their creations is at the heart of many of the most popular stories of lighthouses. There’s often great heroism in the struggle against nature. Abbie Burgess was the daughter of the keeper at the Matinicus Rock Light Station, far offshore in Maine’s Penobscot Bay, U.S. In 1857, when she was 16 years old, Abbie was left in charge of the station when her father went away for supplies. Not only was she expected to keep the two lighthouses lit at night, she also had to take care of her invalid mother and two younger siblings.
A storm hit just after Abbie’s father left. The island was flooded, and Abbie had to move her mother and siblings into one of the lighthouse towers to keep them safe. A series of storms and high seas prevented her father from returning for a month. Never once did the lights go out at night during that time, and Abbie kept everyone safe. She was celebrated as a national heroine. This is just one shining example of the dedication of lighthouse keepers and their families all over the world.
Even in these days of GPS and other modern technology, lighthouses still serve a vital purpose for navigation. Electronics can fail, and when that happens there’s nothing better than the sight of a lighthouse to show us the way to safe harbor.
Lighthouses represent many things to many people, but they have universal qualities that make them a very special class of structure and help to explain why they’re so iconic in our culture. Lighthouses were built for completely positive, altruistic reasons–to safeguard life and property. It’s no accident that churches, schools, and all kinds of businesses employ their symbolism. For most people, a picture of a lighthouse conjures all kinds of good feelings. They represent all that is good in humanity.
The Lighthouse Handbook: New England, by Jeremy D’Entremont
The Lighthouse Handbook: West Coast, by Jeremy D’Entremont (coming in 2016)
Lovers’ Light: The History of Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse, by Jeremy D’Entremont
Women Who Kept the Lights: An Illustrated History of Female Lighthouse Keepers, by Mary Louise Clifford and J. Candace Clifford
America’s Lighthouses: An Illustrated History, by Francis Ross Holland Jr.
The Ultimate Book of Lighthouses: History, Legend, Lore, Design, Technology, Romance, by Samuel Willard Compton and Michael J. Rhein
Jeremy D’Entremont is the author of more than a dozen books and hundreds of articles on lighthouses and other maritime subjects. He is the historian of the American Lighthouse Foundation, founder of Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses, and webmaster of www.newenglandlighthouses.net. He lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.