Lighthouses: 2700 Years of History

Isn’t it comforting when someone says “we’ll keep the light on for you?”  No, this isn’t ad copy for a “Motel 6” commercial.  I’m referring to a tradition that began around 660 B.C. and continues today.  While it hasn’t exactly been a porch light, mariners have known the comfort of someone keeping a light on for them for almost 2,700 years.

The earliest record of what we know today as a lighthouse dates back nearly 27 centuries and was located on the Mediterranean shore of the African continent.  That “beacon” of hope for sailors employed what we would call a “bon-fire,” burning atop a high and visible point of land.  Mariners would use this reference to guide their ships safely into port.

Due to the curvature of the earth, it was necessary for the flames to be very high above the water in order for mariners to view the beacon early enough to guide them.  The intensity of the flames was important to enable sailors to observe the beacon in poor visibility. The basic concept of yesteryear hasn’t changed much regarding height and intensity requirements.

After about four hundred years of building fires on hilltops, the practice of exhibiting huge flames on very tall towers became prominent.  Around 260 B.C., such towers permitted a light to be shown along a shoreline which had no hill on which to build a fire.   Up through the Middle Ages, what was called the “watch-tower light” was a mariner’s beacon to find the way home.

Gradually, smaller and more intense light sources were doing the job of the bon-fire.  The advent of the candle, coupled with techniques to reflect and refract the light, is an example.  Those developments took place through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Hundreds of candles could be consumed in a single night in those days.

The first lighthouse in the United States was erected at the entrance to Boston Harbor in 1716.  It was a masonry structure that became known as the “Boston Light.”  Prior to that structure, as far back as 1673, pitch and oakum were burned to provide a beacon for Boston Harbor.

The second lighthouse in the United States was built at Sandy Hook, New Jersey in 1764.  Situated just south of the entrance to New York Harbor, the Sandy Hook Light assisted mariners bound for ports in both New York and New Jersey.

What began as a wood fire, advanced through the use of pitch, oakum, coal, oil, kerosene and finally to electricity.  Once the lighthouses were electrified, various flashing characteristics became easy to display.  In that way, several lighthouses in view of a ship at one time could be distinguished from one another.

We’ve come a long way since the days of the bon-fire.  The U.S. Coast Guard maintains over seventy-five lighthouses.  Twenty-one of those lighthouses produce a light intensity of over a million candlepower each.  That’s a lot of candles!

We have experienced many technological advances in the last 2,700 years.  Satellites gave us GPS (Global Positioning System).  Electronic displays pinpoint our position within a few hundred feet.  However, when a 15 cent electronic component fails, we still hope that someone left a light on for us.  Some things never change.

Until next time, we wish you fair winds and may the depth of water always exceed the draft of your vessel.


World Wide Marine Training, LLC, is a U.S. Coast Guard Approved facility authorized to give examinations for captain’s licenses up to Master 200 Tons, Able Seaman up to Unlimited, STCW Basic Training, Radar, ARPA and other Endorsements. Please visit or call toll-free 866-249-2135.