Lighthouses are beautiful to look at. These man-made light towers were meant to guide our sailers from ship wreckages in the night. You'll enjoy our scenic Lighthouse checks collection honoring these coastal wonders.
Lighthouses Through the Ages
Since man first began exploring the world by boat, venturing into rough, unknown waters, there has been a need for lighthouses. Early sailors were aided by fires set along ridges and hilltops. These flames helped alert ships to the presence of a safe port and warned of potential hazards. Since those first flames were lit, they have developed over the centuries into the lighthouses we know today. With the advancement of technology, those lighthouses have changed tremendously, but always serving a vital purpose to keep sailors safe from a watery grave.
Lighting Up Egypt
The first mention of using fire in some form to alert sailors comes from the 8th century BC in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. However, in those days, they were little more than flaming beacons on a hill top, rather than the lighthouses that we think of today. It took hundreds of years for those small fires to develop into flames that were raised up on high platforms, increasing their visibility and purpose.
By 280 BC, the Pharos of Alexandria in Egypt was built, becoming one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It was an architectural and technological marvel and served as the basis for all lighthouses that would come after it. It stood approximately 350 feet high, unrivalled in height by any other manmade structure except for the pyramids of Giza. This monumental lighthouse remained standing until some time in the 13th or 14th century.
As Roman, Greek, and Phoenician sailors set out to conquer the world, through trade and exploration, lighthouses were built to make their travels safer. By 400 AD, there were lighthouses stretching from the Atlantic to the Baltic Sea. The simple open flames had been updated to oil lanterns, often protected by a roof and with some sort of pane of glass to offer additional protection from the elements.
A Lighthouse Renaissance
By the 1100s, as trade once again became far-reaching for many countries, the number of lighthouses began to grow once again. This time, it was Italy and France that paved the way for the new lighthouse developments.
Around 1139 in Italy, the Laterna of Genoa was constructed. It has undergone various rebuilds over the centuries, but it still remains today. Lighthouses typically had a keeper who would light the flame each day and make sure it remained lit. One of the keepers of the Laterna was none other than the uncle of Christopher Columbus.
Another job of the keeper was to keep the panes of glass clean that protected the guiding flame. By the 1500s, coal was frequently used as a light source, since it could burn bright and for long periods of time. However, it also produced a great deal of black smoke, which could quickly cover the glass, blocking out the important light. It wasn’t until 1782 that a Swiss scientist came up with a smokeless oil lamp.
Other fuel sources and burners were developed over the following years, including the use of acetylene, which allowed for the first automatic lights that could be left unattended. Eventually, by the 1920s, electric lamps became more and more common, particularly as longer-lasting lights were developed.
Paired with the mirrors, which had been developed over the centuries to strengthen and focus the light, the lighthouse had become a finely tuned instrument vital for safe sea travel.
Today, with GPS and a variety of high-tech instruments on even small pleasure boats, the lighthouse is no longer as important as it once was. Yet many sailors still find them useful as part of their navigational system and they serve as a reassuring backup for any boat caught without high-tech gear. Paired with their simplistic beauty and romantic past, lighthouses will hopefully remain a part of the coastal landscape for generations to come.
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