Beachy Head LighthouseLighthouses of some kind have been known from very ancient times. One of the seven wonders of the world was the great Pharos, or lighthouse of Alexandria which dates back to 280 BC, but some hundreds of years before that, beacon fires had been maintained by priests on the Egyptian coast as warnings and guides to mariners in the Mediterranean. When the Romans came to Britain they built a pharos, or lighthouse, at Dover, and several beacons were maintained during the following centuries.

The Early Lighthouses

Ancient lighthouses were purely a tower with a 'basket' constructed at the top, where a fire was lit. The fires needed to be maintained which was difficult as was removing the ash afterwards.

By the reign of Henry VIII, when British shipping and commerce began to grow, it became necessary to take the matter of lighthouses seriously in hand, and the King granted a charter to a society which was to build and maintain light beacons at certain points on the coast.

Longships Lighthouse, Land's EndLater, candles were used, and then came oil lamps. The number of lighthouses, too, increased, and at last the Eddystone Lighthouse as built by Winstanley on a lonely rock off the south coast. It was a weird wooden structure, more like a pleasure pagoda in the grounds of an exhibition than a lighthouse to withstand the storms of the Atlantic, and one night during a great gale it was carried away, its designer being inside at the time.

Modern day lighthouses carry a powerful light to warn ships or aeroplanes that they are approaching a place (usually land) dangerous or important to navigation. The light is magnified and directed out to the horizon or up to the zenith by a series of mirrors or prisms. Increasingly lighthouses are powered by electricity and automated rather than staffed; the more recent models also emit radio signals.

Lights may be either flashing or rotating. Fixed lights are liable to cause confusion. The pattern of lighting is individually varied so that ships or aircraft can identify the lighthouse. In fog, sound signals are made (horns, sirens, explosives), and in the case of lightbuoys, fog bells and whistles are operated by the movement of the waves.

In England beacons burning in church towers served as lighthouses until the 17th century, and in the earliest lighthouses, such as the Eddystone, first built in 1698, open fires or candles were used.

Where reefs or sandbanks made erection of a lighthouse impossible, lightships were often installed; increasingly these are being replaced by fixed, small, automated lighthouses. Where it is impossible to install a fixed structure, unattended lightbuoys equipped for up to a year's service may be used. In the UK, these are gradually being converted from acetylene gas in cylinders to solar power.

In the UK there are three lighthouse authorities: Trinity House, the Northern Lighthouse Board, and the Commissioners of Irish Lights.

In 1995 in Britain, there were 56 automated lighthouses, 11 staffed lighthouses, 10 automated lightvessels, 2 automated lightfloats, 2 large automatic navigation buoys (lanbys), 414 buoys (of which 94 were unlit), 26 beacons, 62 radar or radio beacons, and 11 Decca Navigator stations.

Strong as a Rock

A wiser system of construction for the lighthouse towers came into favour when Smeaton built the second Eddystone Lighthouse. It was made of massive blocks of stone, dovetailed together, the foundations being dovetailed into the rock itself, so that the lighthouse really became a continuation of the rock on which it was built.

Also the shape of the tower, tapering towards the top, was based on the principle of the tree trunk, which weathers the storms so well. There are, of course, different plans and designs for dovetailing the stonework, but the principle of Smeaton is still used. The walls are made much thicker at the bottom of the lighthouse than the top, and in the Wolf Rock Lighthouse, for instance, off Land's End, which is shown here, the walls at the level of the entrance door are nearly eight feet thick, and they gradually decrease till they are only two and a quarter feet near the top.

It is in the brilliance of the light that the most marvellous improvements have taken place in recent years. Oil, gas and electricity are all used, but the power of the light is enormously increased by the wonderful system of lenses through which the light is made to shine.

In lighthouses which are to shine only in one direction a combination of lenses, prisms and reflecting mirrors gives a concentrated and powerful beam. There are all sorts of combinations of lenses and prisms, but the principle is more or less the same.

The First Revolving Light

Flamborough HeadIn order that the mariner on dark nights may distinguish one lighthouse from another, and not mistake his position, various systems of revolving and flashing lights are arranged. It was in 1783 that the first revolving light was erected at Marstrand in Sweden, and at the beginning of the 19th century one was placed at Flamborough Head. Now there are many revolving lighthouses in different parts of the world.

Up to Smeaton's day coal and wood fires had been used to give the light, but he, for the first time, used tallow candles, placing 24 in a chandelier, and the total value of the light was only 67.2 candle power. Contrast this with the present illumination of some lighthouses, which throw a beam of over 60 million candle power that can bee seen for a distance of more than 30 miles.

The Lighthouses

Winstanley Lighthouse 1698

The Eddystone had always been a dangerous rock for shipping entering the Channel, and for centuries there had been suggestions for lighting it in some way so that mariners might be warned. 

Henry Winstanley was an artist and engraver, who among other things designed playing cards. He was born at Saffron Walden in Essex. He was greatly interested in mechanics, and had a workshop at Littlebury, where he invented many strange devices.

Winstanley began building the first Eddystone Lighthouse on July 14th 1696, when William the Third was on the throne, and the first summer was spent in making twelve holes in the rock and fastening twelve great irons to hold the work that was to be done afterwards. Winstanley hoped to be able to finish the lighthouse in the second year, and the Admiralty helped him by lending him boats and men.

In the second year a round pillar twelve feet high and fourteen feet in diameter was erected on the Rock, and in the third year the remainder of the lighthouse, built of wood, was carried up to a height of eighty feet, and a weather vane placed on top.

At last it was finished, and on the night of November 14th, 1698, it was lighted up with tallow candles.

After the first winter Winstanley visited his lighthouse to see how it had borne the blasts. He found it unshaken, but as the seas had often blown over the top of the lantern, obscuring the light, he decided to strengthen the foundations, take down the upper part of the building and rebuild it much higher. He did so, and the height was now raised to 120 feet.

The Original Eddystone lighthouse as portrayed by Harbour Lights

Some people feared for the lighthouse should a really terrific storm sweep round it, but Winstanley laughed at all their fears. "I only wish," said he "that I may be in the lighthouse in circumstances that will test its strength to the utmost."

On the afternoon of November 26th, 1703, he set off in dirty weather from Plymouth for the Eddystone Rock, deciding to stay there for the night. Then came the Great Storm, with its dramatic consequences.

We know no more of what happened, except that when daylight dawned on the morning of November 27th, and men looked out towards the Eddystone Rock, there were no signs of a lighthouse. The Rock was bare as it used to be. Winstanley's structure, with its designer, had been swept away for ever by the Great Storm.

A wiser system of construction for the lighthouse towers came into favour when Smeaton built the second Eddystone Lighthouse. It was made of massive blocks of stone, dovetailed together, the foundations being dovetailed into the rock itself, so that the lighthouse really became a continuation of the rock on which it was built.