Lighthouses – America’s Beacons of Safety
Let’s face it, everyone loves lighthouses. They stand tall in quiet majesty guiding all within her glow home to safety. By night, their powerful beacons warn of rocky shores and dangerous waters, while at the same moment providing the prudent navigator the sense of security that he or she is safely on course to his destination.
Images and graphic depictions of lighthouses and beacons have been used for decades by churches, and other organizations to symbolically convey similar messages.
So critical to navigation in early times, lighthouses were manned by light keepers whose sole job was to ensure that the beacon was kept lit since they were flames of some sort. The evolution of the light itself from early flames of burning coal to whale oil, olive oil, and other oils – to vaporized gas is fascinating. There are three essential components to a functioning lighthouse. The burner or light itself, the optics or lens and the clockworks, the means by which the entire system rotates.
Probably the most important innovation in the lighthouse beacon was the invention of the Fresnel lens by French engineer and physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel in 1823 (pronounced fre-nel rather than frez-nel). The engineering of the Fresnel lens is not for this blog but suffice to say they are still in use today on every single boat and ship with port and starboard running lights, and masthead lights. The first Fresnel lens in a lighthouse increased the luminosity of the light by a factor of 4. It was an amazing advancement for which I am personally grateful
As a young, green navigator fresh out of school, I was standing watch alone on the bridge of my cargo ship going up the Florida coast. GPS had not yet been invented so I took my position bearings off the flashing lighthouses I could see up and down the coast. (take azimuth bearings off a series of lighthouses and where they cross is where the ship is). We were only a mile or so off shore with a lot of traffic so time was critical. To distinguish which lighthouse was which on the chart, they would all have different time spans between flashes. In other words, one lighthouse would flash every 1 second; another up the coast every 2 seconds and yet another lighthouse might flash every 1.5 seconds. It was agonizing trying to figure out which one was which. Thus I am thankful that the Fresnel lens was invented so that they could be seen far enough off shore so as to not get in trouble. Plus, my trusty little stopwatch helped figure out which one was which.
However, this blog is not about me and my seagoing adventures, it is to inspire you as to the romance and elegance of these beautiful and majestic lighthouses. Lightkeepers and their lonely solitude life are a thing of the past as are many of our functioning lighthouses. Modern era lighthouses are electric and unmanned. Many are mere skeletal towers.
Many of the old lighthouse structures and homes still exist in the form of small individual museums. Many are funded privately and have wonderful stories to tell. You will enjoy the visit and the trek up the winding staircase to the light with a view of the grand vastness of the ocean and rocky shore.
There is another whole world to the history of lighthouses should you want to explore further. I recommend reading about the US Lighthouse Service that was established in 1910 under the Department of the Treasury to control and operate all the lighthouses in the United States. Previously and as early as 1789, the Treasury Department operated them as the United States Lighthouse Establishment.
Until next time, be happy and safe in your travels and please feel free to comment below.