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A lighthouse is a tower, building, or framework designed to emit light from a system of lamps and lenses or, in older times, from a fire and used as an aid to navigation and to pilots at sea.

Lighthouses are used to mark dangerous coastlines, hazardous shoals and reefs, and safe entries to harbors and can also assist in aerial navigation. Once widely used, the number of operational lighthouses has declined due to the expense of maintenance and replacement by modern electronic navigational aids.

Lighthouse technology

In a lighthouse, the source of light is called the "lamp" (whether electric or fueled by oil) and the concentration of the light is by the "lens" or "optic".Originally lit by open fires and later candles, the Argand hollow wick lamp and parabolic reflector was developed around 1781 in Europe. In the US, whale oil was used with solid wicks as the source of light, until the Argand parabolic reflector system was introduced around 1810 by Winslow Lewis.Colza oil replaced whale oil in the early 1850s, but US farmers' lack of interest in growing this caused the service to switch to lard oil in the mid 1850s. Kerosene started replacing lard oil in the 1870s and the service was finally totally converted by the late 1880s. Electricity and carbide (acetylene gas) started to replace kerosene around the turn of the 20th century. The use of the latter was promoted by the Dalén light, which automatically lit the lamp at nightfall and extinguished it at dawn.

Lens technology

Prior to modern strobe lights, lenses were used to concentrate the light from a continuous source. Two tasks were involved:
  • vertical light rays of the lamp are redirected into a horizontal plane
  • horizontally the light is focused into one or a few directions at a time, with the light beam sweeping around; as a result, in addition to seeing the side of the light beam, there are instances that one can see the light directly from a further distance away.

Fresnel lens

Pigeon Point Lighthouse with light on illuminated by Fresnel lens
This concentration of light is accomplished with a rotating lens assembly. In classical period lighthouses, the light source was a kerosene lamp, or earlier an animal or vegetable oil Argand lamp, and the lenses rotated by a weight driven clockwork assembly wound by lighthouse keepers, sometimes as often as every two hours. The lens assembly sometimes floated in mercury to reduce friction. In more modern lighthouses, electric lights and motor drives were used, generally powered by diesel electric generators. These also supplied electricity for the lighthouse keepers.Efficiently concentrating the light from a large omnidirectional light source requires a very large diameter lens. This would require a very thick, heavy lens if naïvely implemented. Development of the Fresnel lens (pronounced [freɪ'nɛl]/FREH nel or ['frɛz.nəl]/frez null) in 1822 revolutionized lighthouses in the 1800s, focusing 85% of a lamp's light versus the 20% focused with the parabolic reflectors of the time. Its design enabled construction of lenses of large size and short focal length without the weight and volume of material in conventional lens designs. Although the Fresnel lens was invented in 1822, it was not used in the US until the 1850s due to the parsimonious administrator of the United States Lighthouse Establishment, Stephen Pleasonton. With the creation of the United States Lighthouse Board in 1852, all US lighthouses received Fresnel lenses by 1860.

Fresnel lenses were ranked by Order, with a first order lens being the largest, most powerful and expensive; and a sixth order lens being the smallest. The order is based on the focal length of the lens. A first order lens has the longest focal length, with the sixth being the shortest. Coastal lighthouses generally use first, second or third order lenses, while harbor lights and beacons use fourth, fifth or sixth order lenses.
How a Fresnel lens works.

Some lighthouses, such as those at Cape Racemarker, Newfoundlandmarker, and Makapu'u Point, Hawaii, used a more powerful hyperradiant Fresnel lens manufactured by the firm of Chance Brothersmarker.

In recent times, many Fresnel lenses have been replaced by rotating aerodrome beacons which require less maintenance. In modern automated lighthouses, this system of rotating lenses is often replaced by a high intensity light that emits brief omnidirectional flashes (concentrating the light in time rather than direction). These lights are similar to obstruction lights used to warn aircraft of tall structures. Recent innovations are "Vega Lights", and initial experiments with LED panels.

Light characteristics

In any of these designs an observer, rather than seeing a continuous weak light, sees a brighter light during short time intervals. These instants of bright light are arranged to create a light characteristic or, pattern specific to the particular lighthouse. For example, for the Scheveningen lighthouse, time intervals between flashes are alternately 2.5 and 7.5 seconds. Some lights have sectors of a particular color (usually formed by colored panes in the lantern) to distinguish safe water areas from dangerous shoals. Modern lighthouses often have unique reflectors or Racon transponders so the radar signature of the light is also unique.



To be effective the lamp must be high enough to be seen before the danger is reached by a mariner. The minimum height is calculated according to trigonometry by taking the square root of the height of a lighthouse in feet and multiplying it by 1.17 to yield the distance to the horizon in nautical miles.

Where dangerous shoals are located far off a flat sandy beach, the prototypical tall masonry coastal lighthouse is constructed to assist the navigator making a landfall after an ocean crossing. Often these are cylindrical to reduce the effect of wind on a tall structure, such as Cape May Lightmarker. Smaller versions of this design are often used as harbor lights to mark the entrance into a harbor, such as New London Harbor Lightmarker.

Where a tall cliff exists, a smaller structure may be placed on top such as at Horton Point Lightmarker. Sometimes, such a location can be too high – as along the west coast of the United States. In these cases, lighthouses are placed below clifftop to ensure that they can still be seen at the surface during periods of fog, as at Point Reyes Lighthousemarker. Another victim of fog was Point Loma Light marker which was replaced with a lower lighthouse, Point Loma Light marker.

As technology advanced, prefabricated skeletal iron or steel structures tended to be used for lighthouses constructed in the twentieth century. These often have a narrow cylindrical core surrounded by an open lattice work bracing, such as Finns Point Range Lightmarker.

Sometimes a lighthouse needs to be constructed in the water itself. Wave-washed lighthouses are masonry structures constructed to withstand water impact, such as Eddystone Lighthousemarker in Britain and the St. George Reef Lightmarker off California. In shallower bays, screw pile ironwork structures are screwed into the seabed and a low wooden structure is placed above the open framework, such as Thomas Point Shoal Lighthousemarker. As screw piles can be disrupted by ice, in northern climates steel caisson lighthouses such as Orient Point Lightmarker are used. Orient Long Beach Bar Lightmarker (Bug Light) is a blend of a screw pile light that was later converted to a caisson light because of the threat of ice damage.

In waters too deep for a conventional structure, a lightship might be used instead of a lighthouse. Most of these have now been replaced by fixed light platforms (such as Ambrose Lightmarker) similar to those used for offshore oil exploration.


Lighthouse lantern room from mid 1800s

While lighthouse buildings differ depending on the location and purpose, they tend to have common components.

A Light Station comprises the Lighthouse tower and all outbuildings, such as the keeper's living quarters, fuel house, boathouse, and fog-signaling building. The Lighthouse itself consists of a tower structure supporting the lantern room where the light operates.

The Lantern Room is the glassed-in housing at the top of a lighthouse tower containing the lamp and lens. Its glass storm panes are supported by metal Astragal bars running vertically or diagonally. At the top of the lantern room is a stormproof Ventilator designed to remove the smoke of the lamps and the heat that builds in the glass enclosure. A Lightning rod and grounding system connected to the metal Cupola roof provides a safe conduit for any lightning strikes.

Immediately beneath the lantern room is usually a Watch Room or Service Room where fuel and other supplies were kept and where the keeper prepared the lanterns for the night and often stood watch. The clockworks (for rotating the lenses) were also located there. On a lighthouse tower, an open platform called the gallery is often located outside the watch room (called the Main Gallery) or Lantern Room (Lantern Gallery). This was mainly used for cleaning the outside of the windows of the Lantern Room.

Lighthouses near to each other that are similar in shape are often painted in a unique pattern so they can easily be recognized during daylight. This marking is called a daymark. The black and white spiral pattern of Cape Hatteras Lighthousemarker is one example. Race Rocks Lightmarker in western Canada is painted in horizontal black and white bands to stand out against the horizon.

Range lights

Aligning two fixed points on land provides a navigator with a line of position called Range. Ranges can be used to precisely align a vessel within a narrow channel such as in a river. With landmarks of a range illuminated with a set of fixed lighthouses, nighttime navigation is possible.

Such paired lighthouses are called Range lights. Two lights are used in this scheme. The one closer to the vessel is named the beacon or front range; the furthest away is called the rear range. The rear range light is always taller than the front.

When the vessel is on the correct course, the two lights line up above one another. But when the observer is out of position, the difference in alignment indicates the proper direction of travel to correct the problem.



Perhaps the most famous lighthouse in history is the Lighthouse of Alexandriamarker, built on the island of Pharosmarker in Hellenistic Egypt.The name Pharos is still used as the noun for "lighthouse" in some languages, for example: Albanian, Catalan and Romanian (far), French (phare), Italian, Galician and Spanish (faro), Portuguese (farol), Bulgarian (фар), and Greek (φάρος). The term "pharology" (study of lighthouses) also derives from the island's name.

The Lighthouse of Alexandria was built in 280 BC to serve as the port's landmark. With a height variously estimated between 115 and 135 meters (383 - 440 ft) it was among the tallest man-made structures on Earth for many centuries, and was identified as one of the Seven Wonders of the World by classical writers. Two lighthouses, each called the Pharos, were built at Dover soon after the Roman conquest of Britain. They were sited on the two heights (Eastern Heights and Western Heightsmarker) and modeled on the one built for Caligula's aborted invasion at Boulognemarker.

Tang Dynasty Chinese writer Jia Dan wrote in his book (written between 785 - 805) that in the sea route forming the opening mouth of the Persian Gulfmarker, the medieval Iranians had erected large minaret towers that served as lighthouses. Confirming the Chinese reports, a century later, Arab writers al-Mas'udi and al-Muqaddasi wrote of the same lighthouses.

In China, the medieval mosque at Cantonmarker had a minaret that served as a lighthouse. The later Song Dynasty Chinese pagoda tower built in medieval Hangzhoumarker, known as the Liuhe Pagodamarker (erected in 1165), also served as a lighthouse for sailors along the Qiantang River.

During the Dark Ages, Roman lighthouses fell into disuse, but some remained functional, such as the Tower of Herculesmarker in A Coruñamarker, Spain, and others in the Mediterranean Sea. As navigation improved, lighthouses gradually expanded into Western and Northern Europe. One of the oldest working lighthouses in Europe is located at Hook Headmarker in County Wexfordmarker, Ireland. It was built during the medieval period, in a sturdy circular design.A century later, in the Late Middle Ages, a 40ft tower was built by Edward the Black Prince at Cordouan near Girondemarker, France. One hundred years later, in 1581, Henri III asked architect Louis de Foix to survey it and estimate the cost of repair. The high cost led to de Foix being contracted three years later to build a new one.

Building the lighthouse took twenty-seven years; finally completed in 1611, the tiered Cordouanmarker symbolized French maritime power and prestige. The interior had sumptuous king's apartments, decorated pillars and murals. Its upper level was rebuilt in 1788, and the lighthouse has remained active since. The tower later became the first to use the revolutionary Fresnel lens, in the early 1820s. While visiting at this time, Briton Robert Stevenson was deeply impressed by the work being done with the new light. He sought to expand its use across Scotland as, fueled by the demands of the Age of Sail, lighthouse development began to gain pace.

Classic period

Lighthouse development accelerated in the seventeenth century with national lighthouse services established in Denmark (1650), and Britain's Trinity Housemarker constructing its first in 1609. The first Eddystone Lighthouse was lit in 1698, though its third incarnation was the most enduring, designed by John Smeaton and finished in 1759. As Britain became the dominant seapower, lighthouses constructed by the Stevenson family for the Northern Lighthouse Board began to appear in Scotland.

The first lighthouse in America was Boston Lightmarker on Little Brewster Islandmarker (1716). The first keeper was George Worthylake who drowned, along with his wife and daughter, when returning to the island in 1718. The original tower was destroyed by the British during the evacuation of Boston and eventually reconstructed in 1784. The oldest existing lighthouse in America is Sandy Hook Lighthousemarker, NJ (1764), which is still in operation. By the end of the 19th century, the United States, with its long coastlines had the most lighthouses of any nation.
The US Bureau of Lighthouses was created in 1789 by the 9th Act of the first Congress which placed lighthouses under federal control. Over the years, lighthouses were placed under the direction of Department of Revenue (this department was disbanded in 1820), Department of Treasurymarker (until 1903), then the Department of Commercemarker. The Lighthouse Board (of the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment) held sway from 1852 to July 1, 1910, when Commerce created the Lighthouse Service. The United States Coast Guard took over on July 7, 1939.

After 1852 the US was divided into Lighthouse Districts; originally eight, they eventually numbered 19. Each District was run by a Naval Officer appointed by the Lighthouse Board as the District Inspector. He ran the district in tandem with an Army Corps of Engineers' officer who was in charge of engineering projects. In 1910, civilians started replacing the military officers.

Lighthouse keepers were needed to trim the wicks, replenish fuel, wind clockworks and perform maintenance tasks such as cleaning lenses and windows. In 1907, Nils Gustaf Dalén produced the sun valve which turned the beacon on and off using daylight. The first one was erected on Furuholmen’s lighthouse between Stockholmmarker and Vaxholmmarker. In 1912 Dalén was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention of 'automatic valves designed to be used in combination with gas accumulators in lighthouses'.

Dalén's inventions, electrification and automatic lamp changers began to make lighthouse keepers obsolete. For many years, lighthouses still had keepers, partly because lighthouse keepers could serve as a rescue service if necessary. Improvements in maritime navigation and safety such as GPS have led to the phasing out of non-automated lighthouses, with the last keepers removed in the 1990s.


Often in inaccessible locations, modern lighthouses are more functional and less picturesque; usually they use solar-charged batteries and have a single stationary flashing light sitting on a steel skeleton tower. The last manned lighthouse built in the US was the Charleston Lightmarker constructed in 1962. Resembling an air traffic control tower, it features a modern triangular shape, aluminum alloy skin, air conditioning, an elevator and the most powerful lamp in the Western Hemisphere. It too is now automated.

Famous lighthouse builders

John Smeaton is noteworthy for having designed the third and most famous Eddystone Lighthouse but some builders are well known for their work in building multiple lighthouses. The Stevenson family (Robert, Alan, David, Thomas, David Alan and Charles) made lighthouse building a three generation profession in Scotland. Irishman Alexander Mitchell invented and built a number of screwpile lighthouses despite blindness. Corps of Engineers Lieutenant George Meade built numerous lighthouses along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts before gaining wider fame as the winning general at the Battle of Gettysburgmarker. Alexander Ballantyne built two of the most challenging wave washed lighthouses on barren rock in the Pacific, Tillamook Rock Lightmarker and St. George Reef Lightmarker. Englishman James Douglass was knighted for his work on lighthouses.


In the United States, lighthouses are maintained by the United States Coast Guard (USCG).Those in England and Wales are looked after by Trinity Housemarker; in Scotland, by the Northern Lighthouse Board; and in Ireland by the Commissioners of Irish Lights. In Canada, they are managed by the Canadian Coast Guard. In Australia, lighthouses are conducted by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

The Soviet Unionmarker built a number of automated lighthouses powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators in remote locations. They operated for long periods without external support with great reliability. However numerous installations deteriorated, were stolen, or vandalized. Some cannot be found due to poor record keeping.


As lighthouses became less essential to navigation, many of their historic structures faced demolition or neglect. In the United States, the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000 provides for the transfer of lighthouse structures to local governments and private non-profit groups, while the USCG continues to maintain the lamps and lenses. In Canada, the Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society won heritage status for Sambro Island Lighthousemarker, and sponsored a bill to change Canadian federal laws to protect lighthouses.

Many groups formed to restore and save lighthouses around the world. They include the World Lighthouse Society and the United States Lighthouse Society. A further international group is the Amateur Radio Lighthouse Society, which sends amateur radio operators to publicize the preservation of remote lighthouses throughout the world.

Popular culture and symbolism

Visiting and photographing lighthouses are popular hobbies as is collecting ceramic replicas. Some lighthouses are popular travel destinations in their own right, and the buildings maintained as tourist attractions. In the US, National Lighthouse and Lightship Weekend is celebrated on the first weekend of August, and International Lighthouse and Lightship Weekend on the third weekend. Many lighthouses are open to the public and amateur radio operators communicate between them on these days.

Lighthouses are popular icons on vehicle license plates. Barnegat Lighthouse, Tuckerton Island Lighthouse, Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse, Saybrook Breakwater Lightmarker, White Shoal Lightmarker, and Biloxi Lightmarker are so depicted.

The Disney film Pete's Dragon featured a lighthouse and the resulting Helen Reddy song "Candle on the Water" alludes to it. The Australian television series Round the Twist also involved a family living at Split Point Lighthousemarker. The long-running American soap opera Guiding Light has featured a lighthouse in many of its opening title segments, and the fictional Springfield has a lighthouse situated near the town.

To recognize the role of lighthouse keepers in maritime safety, the US Coast Guard named a class of coastal buoy tenders after famous US lighthouse keepers. Fourteen ships in the class were built between 1996 and 2000.

Due to their function as beacons of safety, organizations choose lighthouses as a symbol. Marriage Encounter uses the lighthouse as their symbol. The lighthouse is also the symbol of US organization for the blind. Lighthouses are often interpreted in dreams as beacons of truth or as male fertility and influence.

Lighthouses were once regarded as an archetypical public good, because ships could benefit from the light without being forced to pay. One reason the Confederacy broke off from the United States was the former's opposition to most taxpayer-funded internal improvements; yet even the Confederate States Constitution explicitly allowed public funds to be spent on lighthouses.

Their isolated and mysterious nature, makes lighthouses a frequent feature of horror or suspense films, and adventure video games.

See also

References and sources



  • Bathurst, Bella. The lighthouse Stevensons. New York: Perennial, 2000. ISBN 0-06-093226-0
  • Beaver, Patrick. A History of Lighthouses. London: Peter Davies Ltd, 1971. ISBN 0-432-01290-7.
  • Crompton, Samuel, W; Rhein, Michael, J. The Ultimate Book of Lighthouses. San Diego, CA: Thunder Bay Press, 2002. ISBN 1-59223-102-0.
  • Jones, Ray; Roberts, Bruce. American Lighthouses. Globe Pequot, 1998. 1st ed. ISBN 0-7627-0324-5.
  • Stevenson, D. Alan. The world's lighthouses before 1820. London: Oxford University Press, 1959.

Further reading

  • Colton, Adam; Colton, Roger. England and Wales in a Flash. 2003. ISBN 0-9544771-0-3.
  • Jones, Ray. The Lighthouse Encyclopedia, The Definitive Reference. Globe Pequot, 2004. 1st ed. ISBN 0-7627-2735-7.
  • Noble, Dennis. Lighthouses & Keepers: U. S. Lighthouse Service and Its Legacy. Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1997. ISBN 1-55750-638-8.
  • Putnam, George R. Lighthouses and Lightships of the United States. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1933.
  • United States Coast Guard. Aids to Navigation. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1945.
  • Price, Scott, T. (Historian) U.S. Coast Guard. Aids to Navigation Historical Bibliography.
  • Weiss, George. The Lighthouse Service, Its History, Activities and Organization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1926.

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