Historical Info

Historical Info

The Story of the Lighthouse

Many, many years ago (thousands of years to be more exact), people lived m a very primitive way--both hunting for and growing their own food (there were no supermarkets in those days, no stores at all!). Eventually they decided to explore the water in a boat to find out what the sea had to offer in the way of food. And, what did they find? They found fish and all kinds of other seafood: clams, mussels, scallops, oysters, lobsters, crabs, etc. During the day they could find their way back to the landing place by looking for a pile of rocks that had been left there.

These daymarks were the first aids to navigation. But how could they find their way home at night? Since much of the shoreline looked very similar, friends had to light a bonfire on a high point to guide them to the right landing area. Still later they used a pole or a tripod to hang a metal basket containing a fire as a method of signaling (a lever light).

Our first lighthouses were actually given to us by Nature. Sailors sometimes used landmarks such as glowing volcanoes to guide them. In the Ancient World, trading ships were eventually built enabling navigators to sail long distances to buy and sell goods. In the days of wooden ships with sails, the wind and waves could easily push them against the rocks and wreck them. And so, the need for lighthouses as warning signals arose.

One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World was a lighthouse--the famous Pharos of Alexandria, Egypt. It is the first one that is recorded in history and was built about 280 BC. Those records tell us that it was the tallest one ever built -- 450 ft. (comparable to a 45-story skyscraper) and used an open fire at the top as a source of light. (Can you imagine being the keeper, climbing to the top to light the fire, and then forgetting the matches or whatever was used in those days to start a fire?)

Pharos-The First Lighthouse

This fantastic structure survived for 1500 years until it was completely destroyed by an earthquake in the 14th Century. Slave labor was used to build it, and it took twenty long years to complete. It was a three-part tower--with a square base, a second story with eight sides and a narrow, taller, round third story. At night they believe its lighted fire could be seen for thirty miles, whereas by day it produced a column of smoke for a daymark. Today we call people who study (or are interested in) lighthouses pharologists. The name comes from that famous lighthouse.
The U.S. Lighthouse Society originally designed this packet to furnish teachers with basic information about lighthouses, their purpose, history, operation and technology in a form presentable to young students. with the society's permission the U.S. Coast Guard Historian's Office is posting this modified version with additional photographs and information.

The U.S. Coast Guard Historian's Office would like to thank Mr. Wayne Wheeler and the other members of The U.S. Lighthouse Society who produced and distributed the original version of this curriculum.

For more information on lighthouses, teachers and students should contact The U.S. Lighthouse Society, 244 Kearny Street, San Francisco, Ca 94108 or consult the lighthouse web pages on The U.S. Coast Guard Historian's web site.