Guiding Routes: Learn about Lighthouses

A lighthouse is one of the most easily recognizable types of buildings. Used to help guide sailors and mariners along their route and safely to shore, these unique buildings are usually found standing near the edge of extremely dangerous ocean shorelines. From coast to coast, you'll find lighthouses dotting the rocky coves and shores of the world. Whether new or old, plain or decorative, these impressive structures have long guided the way for countless boats. With their unique history and beautiful aesthetics, lighthouses are an important part of human culture.


Sailing can be dangerous, and lighthouses can help guide boats safely to shore. Before they were invented, sailors often depended on landmarks or even people lighting large fires to guide their way and keep them from running into hazards along the shore. Soon, people realized that they needed something more effective, and the lighthouse was invented. These tall structures have large, bright lights placed at the top that slowly spin around, providing a bright beacon to the ocean's navigators. Lighthouses are most commonly placed in areas where the shoreline is especially dangerous, rocky, or uneven. Their purpose is to help sailors along their route so they can get safely to shore without accidentally running aground at night. Their height and bright beacons guide mariners as they travel, allowing them to see the shore more clearly and know that they're almost to their destination.

History and Technology of Lighthouses

The use of lighthouses dates as far back as ancient Egypt. The oldest remaining lighthouse, the Tower of Hercules, was built by the Romans and is still the oldest functioning lighthouse in the world today. Soon, this helpful invention was found on coastlines throughout the world, and it made its debut in the United States in 1716 on New England's shore. Today, they're found all along American coastlines, though Michigan holds the title of the state with the most lighthouses.

Before the invention of electricity, most lighthouses used gas lanterns for lighting. Sources of fuel included whale oil, kerosene, wood, or even simply an abundance of candles to produce a bright light. In 1822, the Fresnel lens was invented, which helped to capture more light and project it farther so it could easily be seen. The first lighthouse to use electricity was actually the Statue of Liberty, which began to guide mariners to shore with an illuminated torch in 1886, a job it surrendered in 1902. But other lighthouses followed suit in using electricity, and as power lines began to expand during the 1930s, more lighthouses were able to switch from gas or oil to electricity. These essential beacons were used frequently through the next few decades and required human maintenance until the 1960s. This position, known as a lightkeeper, was a highly demanding job. The U.S. Coast Guard Lighthouse Automation and Modernization Program, started in 1968, has virtually eliminated the need for lightkeepers today by automating the operation of lighthouse beacons.

The Lightkeeper's Job

Before modernization, properly maintaining and operating a lighthouse was a very demanding job. This position, known as a lightkeeper, was frequently manned by one person, called the head keeper, with help from a small group of assistants. These workers would operate in shifts, working through the night to ensure that the lighthouse stayed functioning and lit.

Some of their job duties included refilling lamp oil, trimming or switching candle wicks, alerting mariners by using a foghorn when needed, and cleaning lenses of debris and soot. The job required a lot of physical activity, including climbing stairs, painting, and cleaning lenses and windows to ensure that the light was brightly shining every night. Many lightkeepers kept a detailed daily log that included information like the weather and the amount of fuel that was used to power the lighthouse. Their hard work helped to ensure that sailors could count on lighthouses to light their way no matter what the weather conditions were.

Famous Lighthouses

With more than 18,000 lighthouses in the world, it's not surprising that they've become a fixture in our society. A few lighthouses stand out and have a storied history, making them some of the most famous structures in the world. The Pharos of Alexandria was built around 270 B.C. in ancient Egypt and is largely considered to have been not only the first lighthouse but the tallest structure in the world at that time. This three-tiered lighthouse used a fire that burned inside a glass device that was then reflected onto the water using a mirror. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 1326.

Another famous lighthouse is the Eddystone Lighthouse, located off the coast of Plymouth, England. The environment in this region was so tough that it had to be built a total of four times. Originally, it was made of wood; the first structure was destroyed in a storm, the second fell to fire, and the third, built partly of stone, was dismantled due to erosion of the rocks beneath that made it unstable. Today's structure, made of stone, was first lit in 1882 and still stands today.

Boston Light, located at the entrance to Boston Harbor, is another famous lighthouse that is also home to the first paid lightkeeper. The site was the home of America's first lighthouse, built in 1716, though that structure was destroyed by the British in 1776. The lighthouse that stands there today is the second-oldest working lighthouse in the U.S., and it's the only manned lighthouse remaining in the United States.

Another highly recognizable lighthouse is the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, most known for its bold black and white stripes. This famous lighthouse rests on the shores of the Outer Banks in North Carolina, where it proudly stands 208 feet tall. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was officially completed in 1870 and can still be visited today.

Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse in Argentina is also a favorite with lighthouse enthusiasts, and it's often referred to as "the lighthouse at the end of the world." Located on a small island, it was built in 1920 and is a popular tourist destination today that can only be reached by boat.