The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.
Before the development of clearly defined ports, mariners were guided by fires built on hilltops. Since raising the fire would improve the visibility, placing the fire on a platform became a practice that led to the development of the lighthouse. Originally, lighthouses functioned more as an entrance marker to ports than as a warning signal for hidden dangers.
The most famous lighthouse structure from antiquity was the Pharos of Alexandria built in the third century BC, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It stood more than 350 feet tall until an earthquake destroyed it in the 1300s.
Until automation in the 1980s, British lighthouses always had three-man crews, following an incident at the Smalls Lighthouse off the coast of Pembrokeshire in 1801:
The two-man team, Thomas Howell and Thomas Griffith, were known to quarrel, so when Griffith fell ill and died Howell kept the body as evidence in case he was suspected of murder. He built a makeshift coffin and lashed it to the outside of the lighthouse. It was soon smashed by the wind and waves, and Griffith’s arm fell out of the coffin; when the wind caught it, it waved as though beckoning Howell to come outside. This went on for three weeks of constant storms, and when Howell was eventually relieved he was so harrowed by the experience that some of his friends didn’t recognise him and he was described as ‘almost demented’.
The three-man roster was introduced in response.
The Statue of Liberty functioned as a lighthouse for 16 years until 1902. It could be seen from 24 miles away.
Fleetwood is the only town in the United Kingdom to possess three lighthouses.
The Fresnel lamps in lighthouses floated on baths of mercury (weighing about 1½ tons), which kept the lamp perfectly level and allowed it to turn without friction.
Mercury vapour is associated with such effects as short-term memory loss, confusion, and the manic behaviour we associate with 'mad hatters', so it may be that the psychological difficulties sometimes reported amongst lighthouse keepers were caused (or at least exacerbated) by mercury poisoning.
The nights are so light in the Faroe Islands in summer that the lighthouses are turned off between May and July.
The most celebrated lighthouse-keeper ever was probably 22-year-old Grace Darling. On a stormy night in 1838, in a rowing boat with her father, she rescued 9 survivors from a shipwreck off the Northumbrian coast. She was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Humane Society; Wordsworth, Swinburne and William McGonagall wrote poems about her; and Queen Victoria sent her £50.
Crowds of tourists flocked to see her, which she found unsettling: she’d lived in isolated lighthouses since the age of 10. In particular, she resented all the requests for a lock of her hair, which meant that she went almost bald before dying of TB aged 26.
Peru, Peru. My heart's lighthouse.
The Tower of Hercules in Spain is the world's oldest working lighthouse. The Romans built it in the 2nd century ad.