Dover Castle Roman LighthouseHistory Of Lighthouses

Roman lighthouse at Dover Castle

It was the nineteenth century when lighthouses really came into their own, and played their most prominent role in history. Lighthouses might be compared to Formula 1 motor racing, where cutting edge technology is forced onward in the most challenging conditions. Once proven these developments could then be used more widely. Technologies involving electrical generation, optics, radio communication and building construction, were all developed in association with lighthouses.

But to start the story at its beginnings, the Pharos of Alexandria at the mouth of the Nile was the world's first true tower lighthouse, built by Sostratus of Cnidus in 300BC. It became one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, before being destroyed by an earthquake in the fourteenth century AD. Using the Pharos as a model the Romans started building lighthouses. Roman lighthouses survive at Boulogne, and at Dover Castle in Kent. Remarkably the Roman lighthouse at Corunna on the northern coast of Spain – built by Trajan in the first century AD – remains in use, as a light and radio station.

Following the fall of Roman power the tradition of lighthouses continued with lights built as part of medieval coastal monasteries. No doubt the lights played a double role, aiding navigation in a practical sense, and providing the symbolism of a guiding light in a storm. When Henry VIII moved to dissolve the monasteries, the symbolic power of the light seemed more important than its practical element. As the monasteries were destroyed their lights went with them. Once the lights had gone, they had to be replaced. The replacement organisation rose out of trade guilds – known as Trinity Houses - run by pilots and sailors in port towns. On 20th May 1514, Henry VIII granted Trinity House a charter of incorporation. Money was raised for lighthouse building and maintenance from the levying of tolls on passing ships. Lights were built on orders of the Crown, and then maintained as a kind of private enterprise by individuals, a system which only ended in the nineteenth century. By 1841 Trinity House had bought out all individual lighthouses.



South Foreland

South Foreland Lighthouse, Kent

Trinity House appointed Michael Faraday as its scientific advisor in 1836, five years after Faraday had invented the electric generator. By 1852 a stream power generator had been developed with enough power to support an electric light. Faraday and his associate Professor F.H. Holmes used the power of this generator to pass a current between two 'pencils' of carbon, producing an intense dependable light. This new arc light was installed and tested in Kent's Dungeness and South Foreland Lighthouses. In December 1858 the world's first seawards electric lamp was installed at South Foreland. By 1870 refinements to the system tested at South Foreland allowed Souther Lighthouse between the Tyne and the Wear to became the world's first electrically lit lighthouse. (See Lighthouses, Towers of the Sea by Payton, Willes and Wyndham P22 - 23, and 42 - 43).

The power of this new electric light was then enhanced by development in glass lens design. French engineer Augustin Fresnel's paper A New System of Illumination for Lighthouses was read at the Academy of Sciences in Paris on 29th July 1822. His design took a conventional lens and divided it into a series of concentric sections. This allowed for a much lighter thinner lens, concentrating light as powerfully as a thicker and heavier conventional lens. Fresnel's type of lenses are now used widely, and can be seen in such diverse applications as car headlights, traffic lights, hand held magnifiers, lighting systems in theatres, overhead projectors, and optical landing systems for aircraft.

A similar leap in technology is demonstrated by the building of lighthouses out at sea. Traditional methods of building had been used to build lighthouses on land since 300BC, but building at sea on exposed rocks was a different matter. The first attempt to build a permanent off shore light was made by artist and shipowner Henry Winstanley, on the Eddystone Reef, fourteen miles off Plymouth. The lighthouse was finished in 1698, but was destroyed a few years later by the Great Storm on 1703, taking Winstanley with it. The second Eddystone Lighthouse, a wooden structure, survived for 46 years before being destroyed by fire. The third Eddystone Lighthouse really illustrates the point at which technological advance caught up with the challenge of building an offshore lighthouse. This third light was built by John Smeaton, often referred to as the father of English civil engineering. In 1756 he designed a tower mimicking the shape of an oak tree, constructed in granite blocks, each one dovetailed to its neighbour. Smeaton also developed a quick drying cement called hydralic lime, with the capacity to resist the action of seawater. Smeaton's lighthouse was finished in October 1759, and stood for 120 years, being forced to close only because the rock on which it stood was cracking. This lighthouse perhaps more than any other building represents the advance in building construction techniques that occurred over the period of the Industrial Revolution.

Smeaton's revolutionary lighthouse although no longer in place on the Eddystone rock, still survives. In 1882 the lighthouse was dismantled stone by stone and re-erected at Plymouth Hoe.

Robert Stevenson's lighthouse on the Bell Rock fourteen miles off the Firth of Tay confirmed Smeaton's step forward. Conditions here in the North Sea were even worse than at Eddystone. Nevertheless using an enhanced version of Smeaton's pioneering design, Stevenson, and engineer John Rennie built a lighthouse on Bell Rock. Completed in 1811, Stevenson's lighthouse continues as a working lighthouse today, over 200 years after its construction.



Lizard Lighthouse

The Lizard Lighthouse, Cornwall

Finally lighthouses were also the setting for a leap forward in radio technology. Light could only reach the horizon. To reach over the horizon radio communication was required. On Christmas Eve 1898 Guglielmo Marconi set up an experimental link between South Foreland Lighthouse and the East Godwin Lightship – a distance of twelve miles. Aboard the lightship was Marconi's seasick assistant George Kemp. The first message he sent was Christmas greetings to relations, and to editors of major newspapers. Later that same year the first wireless messages were exchanged across the Channel between South Foreland and Wimereux near Boulogne in France. The Lizard Lighthouse was also used by Marconi to conduct experiments, leading up to his ultimate aim of sending wireless messages across the Atlantic. In January 1901 signals from Niton on the Isle of Wight were received by Marconi at the Lizard. This was a distance of over 186 miles. Less than a year later, this work at the Lizard led on to the first transatlantic radio message sent between Signal Hill Newfoundland, and Poldhu in Cornwall.

"Originally developed by Nasa" is a marketing phrase that has supported the sale of many everyday items. "Originally developed for use in lighthouses" would be equally valid.





South Stack Lighthouse


South Stack Lighthouse, Anglesey

In the nineteenth century lighthouses were really at the cutting edge of widespread change. Today, to a lesser extent, lighthouses continue in that role. Britain's General Lighthouse Authority was commissioned to forecast trends in the use of lighthouses into the first twenty years of the 21st century. The GLA's 2020 Vision sees lighthouses becoming platforms for advanced navigation technologies - GPS error correction by ground reference (DGPS), transponders activated by ship's radar (RACON), radio based long range navigation systems known as LORAN, and the AIS system - a radio signal system between ships and shore stations to indicate position and other navigational information. (See Lighthouses by Toby Chance and Peter Williams P233 - 255).








Edward Moran Statue of Liberty





Edward Moran's painting of the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty in 1886 (This image is copyright free)

So lighthouses are memorials to changes in the past, and even today technical advance is focused upon them. However, in the age of GPS it is inevitable that the practical value of lighthouses has declined. What has not declined is their symbolic power, the same symbolic power which made coastal lights valuable to medieval monasteries. People enjoy visiting lighthouses. Rather than warning lights telling people to stay away, they become the focus of exciting trips to dramatic locations. Some lighthouses - South Stack on the Isle of Anglesey is an example - are important tourist attractions. But the best example of a lighthouse as a symbol can be seen in New York Harbour in the United States. The Statue of Liberty in its early years was officially a lighthouse, and was run by the U.S. government's Lighthouse Board. The statue's torch was considered a navigational aid. When the Statue of Liberty was lit by electricity in 1886 the twin roles of the Statue came together. The light was considered a navigational aid, and the fact that it was now lit by electricity was a symbolic demonstration to people coming to America that this was a modern forward looking country. Over time it was found that the Statue's light actually had little practical use for shipping, and in March 1902 the Statue of Liberty's designation as a lighthouse came to an end. Nevertheless the symbolic power of the Statue's light continues today as a powerful symbol of American identity.










Former lighthouse accommodation is frequently used today as holiday lets. Ideas for lighthouse holidays are listed below.



Lighthouse holidays - accommodation provided in former lighthouse keeper cottages:

Anvil Point Lighthouse, Dorset - see

Bull Point Lighthouse, north Devon - see

Cromer Lighthouse, north Norfolk - see

Lizard Lighthouse, Cornwall - see

Lynton Lighthouse Keepers' Cottage at Foreland Point on the north Devon coast - see

Nash Point Lighthouse, south Wales - see

North Foreland Lighthouse, Kent - see

Pendeen Lighthouse, Cornwall - see

The Keeper's and Engineer's Cottage at Souter – the first lighthouse to be lit by electricity, and the former home of Grace Darling's nephew Robert - see


South Foreland Lighthouse, Kent - see

St Anthony's Lighthouse, Cornwall - see

St Catherine's Lighthouse, Isle of Wight - see

Start Point Lighthouse, Devon - see

Whitby Lighthouse - see

Coastguard Cottages above the Needles Old Battery, Isle of Wight - see


Lighthouse Voyages

For something really out of the ordinary, why not join the maintenance ship which serves Trinity House installations all around the UK coastline. The THV Patricia has six rooms for passengers who want to experience a working ship - see