Beacon on the Rock: The Dramatic History of Lighthouses from Ancient Greece to the Present Day

By Peter Williams | Go to book overview


Chapter 2 THE GUIDING LIGHT

Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709–84), the great English poet, lexicographer, essayist, and critic, defined a
lighthouse as “a high tower on which to hang lanterns.” His 1775 description may have been an
oversimplification but essentially remains true up to today.

Most people, if asked to make a drawing of a lighthouse, would not hesitate to sketch a tapering
tower with a glass lantern on the top. This description, while true of many lighthouses
especially those
on offshore rocks and at the end of harbor breakwaters
does not describe the wealth of building types
used to house lights.

THE DESIGN OF THE LIGHTHOUSE structure, while influenced by fashion, finance, construction materials, and the skills available to the builder, has one aim—to place a light and its equipment in a position where it is at the service of the navigator. The light has to be high enough to be visible from a distance, yet not so high to be obscured by fog and mist. The building, not always a tower, needs to be conspicuous as a landmark by day, and sturdy enough to withstand the relentless onslaught of violent weather.

Today we see such a wealth of fascinating buildings from the past and the present—buildings that house lights and their keepers are as diverse as man's inventive ingenuity. They range from the massive, stone-built offshore tower to the modern, all-glass lighthouse recently built by the Japanese at Takamatsu on northeast Shikoku in 1998. When we browse through books of pictures of famous lighthouses or buy postcards that depict them, we often fail to realize just what engineering skills, design expertise, and brute force had to be employed to put these lifesaving beacons on the rocks of the world. Lighthouses on offshore reefs, for instance, had to have at least one characteristic in common: they needed to be massive enough not only to withstand the elements but also to support the heavy lantern and lighting equipment. Space was needed for the storage of fuel and equipment, and this was so important that finding a place for the keepers to live often seemed an afterthought! Then there was the question of the transport of materials—easier today than in the days of many of the great lighthouses of the past. For instance, there are many examples of huge lighthouses built on rocks throughout the world that have been erected far away from the source of building materials.

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