Guiding ships for countless centuries, as well as looking spectacular on the horizon, every lighthouse boast at least one of fascinating story. From humble beginnings as primitive flames to their automation today, these flashing lights have come a long way.
Did you believe? The earliest from of lighthouses was probably just bonfires on the beach and, since raising the fire would improve the visibility, placing it on a platform became a practice that led to the development of our modern beacons.
Lighthouses historic beginnings stretch right back to Egypt, where one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World was, actually, a lighthouse.
In fact, the first lighthouse in recorded history was Egypt’s Pharos of Alexandria: Built around 280 BC, the source of light was a huge open fire at its summit. In addition, as well as being the world’s first recorded, it was also the tallest one ever built, standing an amazing 137 meters high.
But probably the origins of what we call now lighthouses are even older.
In the ancient world, long before we had actual towers hosting any sort of lamp, mariners would use man-made piles of rocks as daymarks and the glow of volcanoes as a guide at night. Bonfires were also used, along with more sophisticated braziers or metal baskets, which were lit and placed on strategic places like rocks or headlands.
In Ireland braziers were being lit as early as the fifth century, where an astute monk named Saint Dubhán kept a warning beacon lit at Hook Head to prevent sailors from becoming shipwrecked on the rocky coast. Moreover, archaeologists have found the remains of more than 30 lighthouses built by ancient Romans.
The first British colonial lighthouse is located in Boston, Massachusetts, and It was built in 1716, while the first lighthouse in Florida is located in St. Augustine, and it was lit in 1824.
When the Spanish settled in St. Augustine in 1565, they built wooden towers along the coast to defend the city. Despite no evidence of them remains today, It is possible that Spanish soldiers used bonfires to light their watchtowers, doing so made them an early form of a modern lighthouse.
In Europe, during the middle age, Roman lighthouses fell into disuse, but some remained functional, such as the Farum Brigantium (now known as the Tower of Hercules), in A Coruña, Spain, and others in the Mediterranean Sea such as the Lanterna at Genoa.
One of the oldest working lighthouses in Europe is Hook Lighthouse located at Hook Head in County Wexford, Ireland, built during the medieval period.
A century later, in the Late Middle Ages, a 12 m tower was built by Edward the Black Prince at Cordouan, France. One hundred years later, in 1581, Henri III asked architect Louis de Foix to build a new one: its building took twenty-seven years and was finally completed in 1611. Cordouan symbolized French maritime power and prestigem and its interior had sumptuous king’s apartments, decorated pillars and murals. Its upper level was rebuilt between 1780 and 1790 increasing the height from 49m to 60m and incorporating an Argand lamp and one of the first parabolic mirrors which was turned by clockwork developed by a clockmaker of Dieppe, in Normandy region. The tower later became the first to use the revolutionary Fresnel lens, in the early 1820s.
In any case, with many passing centuries, the source and quality of the light itself gradually improved: evolving from wood-burning fires, to coal and substances like pitch and oakum, for a time the lamp even consisted of rows of candles.
In the 1700s was introduced thr revolutionary parabolic reflector, a bowl-like device with a small oil lamp in the centre. The light from the lamp was gathered and focused into a beam and, just like putting a mirror behind a flame, it created the first highly-efficient lighthouse lamp. Later the invention of the Argand lamp itself resulted in a light that was seven times brighter than a candle and could be lit using fuels like lard oil and sperm whale oil. The Argand lamp was used inside the lighthouse’s Fresnel lens until the invention of the electric light bulb towards the end of the 19th century. Originally developed by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel, the eponymous lens has been called “the invention that saved a million ships.”
However, the modern era of lighthouses began a century earlier, at the turn of the 18th century, when their construction boomed in lockstep with burgeoning levels of transatlantic commerce.
Advances in structural engineering and new and efficient lighting equipment allowed for the creation of larger and more powerful lighthouses, the same that fascinate us and that we visit still today.
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