A Brief History
Lighthouses in the Ancient World
and Lighthouses - The Light
Improving the Lamps
Lighthouses have always had
two principal functions: to warn of danger from a spot that sailors
could see from a safe distance both night and day, and to be guides
into harbors or anchorages. Lighthouses also have become symbolic
monuments of society’s efforts to reduce the hazards of seafaring.
These structures were often constructed under precarious circumstances
by skilled builders and were maintained, often at great personal
risk, by dedicated keepers.
The dramatic settings and individual histories of lighthouses
made them objects of interest to non-seafarers. But advances in
technology have rendered many lighthouses obsolete—particularly
those that were manned. During the late 20th century, the urge
to save these symbols of our nautical heritage prompted the establishment
of numerous lighthouse preservation organizations. More recently,
the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000 enables “no-cost” transfers
of federally owned historic light stations to nonprofit corporations,
educational agencies, community development organizations, tribes,
and federal, state, and local governments. Several dozen lighthouses
have already been transferred.
Lighthouses in the Ancient World
The first lighthouse on record was built on the island of Pharos.
Later designated one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world,
it was the only structure among these seven built for a practical
purpose: guiding sailors safely into the harbor at Alexandria,
Egypt. Alexander the Great founded this port city on the Mediterranean
Sea in 332 B.C., and located it on the western edge of the Nile
River delta to avoid the heavy silt and sediment loads deposited
annually by the great river. Ptolemy, ruler of Egypt after Alexander’s
death, authorized the building of the Pharos light in 290 B.C.
Alexandria served ships carrying Egyptian grain and armies to ports
around the Mediterranean, and proved important to the extension
and maintenance of the Roman Empire.
The Pharos lighthouse was the last of the six vanished Wonders
to disappear (the Great Pyramid in Egypt still exists). It stood
for about 1,500 years, finally falling victim to earthquakes in
A.D. 1326. An Arab traveling in 1166 described the lighthouse as
follows: the lowest of three stages was a square about 183 feet
high with a cylindrical core; the middle stage was octagonal with
60-foot sides and a height of about 90 feet; and the third stage
was circular with a height of 24 feet.1
The total height, including the foundation, was about 384 feet.
It was reported to have used fire at night and a sun-reflecting
mirror during the day.
The Pharos lighthouse was memorialized on Roman coins, and its
name is the base for the word “lighthouse” in Spanish
and Italian (faro), Portuguese (farol), and French
(phare). Even in Britain before 1600, a lighthouse was
called a pharos.2
The Romans have been credited with building more than thirty lighthouses
throughout their provinces, including one in Spain at Corunna,
in France at Boulogne (which survived until 1664), and in England
alongside the harbor at Dover.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, no new lighthouses were constructed
until the end of the so-called Dark Ages, when trade among ports
on the Mediterranean and beyond began to expand. The Italians built
a light tower in 1157 at Meloria and at other port cities thereafter,
almost all of them harbor lights. It was not until the 15th century
that lighthouses began to be installed offshore to warn seamen of
hazards to their vessels along routes to the port cities. Alan Stevenson
estimated that the number of lighthouses worldwide grew from about
34 in 1600 to approximately 175 in 1800.3
Lighthouses in America
The first “lighthouses” in the Americas probably consisted
of small fires on hilltops or lanterns displayed from the windows
of houses overlooking harbors. In the territory that eventually
became the United States, the Boston Light was the first structure
generally accepted to be a true lighthouse. It was built in 1715
on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor and lighted for the
first time in 1716. The British destroyed the lighthouse in 1776.
It was rebuilt in 1783 and is still functioning today. Although
the Boston Light is considered the nation’s oldest lighthouse,
the tower itself is only the second oldest. The oldest tower in
the United States is the Sandy Hook Light at the entrance to New
York Harbor, built in 1764.
It should not be surprising that the Northeast hosted the majority
of the early lighthouses, given the more intensive maritime interests
in merchant shipping and fishing in that region, as well as the
less-than-friendly nature of the climate and the approaches to the
New England coast. The U.S. Lighthouse Service was established in
1789 as one of the first acts of the new federal government, and
took over responsibility for the operation of existing lighthouses
and the construction and operation of new lights. During the next
decade, 12 more lighthouses were built and put into operation.4
A chart published in 2001 identifies some 671 standing lighthouses
in the United States, including a number of structures that are
no longer lighted.5 The continuing
development and application of new technologies have made the historic
lighthouse, with its keeper dedicated to maintaining the continued
operation of the light and fog signals, obsolete.
Technology and Lighthouses
- The Light
The purpose of a lighthouse’s light is to provide a mariner
at sea with a fixed point of reference to aid his ability to navigate
in the dark when the shore or an offshore hazard cannot be seen
directly. The distance at which such a light can be seen depends
on the height and intensity of the light. The brighter the light
and the greater its height above the sea, the farther it can be
seen. Of course, when the weather is bad—with rain, snow,
or fog—visibility can be greatly reduced.
The earliest lights were wood-burning fires. Large, visible fires
required vast quantities of wood, which tended to burn quickly.
During the early 1500s, coal began to be used for fires in lighthouses.
Coal had the advantage of burning more slowly and brightly than
wood. However, it also required more care to keep its fire bright,
particularly during bad weather. Enclosing the fire with glass
windows resulted in soot on the glass, which reduced the visibility
of the light. Adding reflectors to increase the visibility also
resulted in deposits of soot on the reflecting surfaces, which
reduced their effectiveness.
Candles were used in some lighthouses. Although not as bright
as coal fires, candles produced less soot and ash, and were more
easily contained within a lantern, which kept the flame steadier.
Some lighthouses used a dozen or more candles and reflectors to
make the light more visible, but in bad weather, still-brighter
lights were needed.
Lamps burning oil were the next step in the attempt to improve
the visibility of the lights. A variety of wick types were used
in these lamps: flat, solid and round, and multiple wicks in a
single oil reservoir (known as “spider lamps”). A lamp
using a hollow, circular wick was invented by a Frenchman, Ami
Argand, in 1781. The design allowed air to flow along both the
inside and outside of the wick, which greatly enhanced the brightness
of the flame. This lamp was often fitted in the center of a large
(18- to 20-inch) parabolic reflector, and was widely used in England
In the United States, an unemployed ship captain, Winslow Lewis,
patented his version of the Argand lamp and parabolic reflector
after demonstrating its superiority to the spider lamp at the Boston
Light. He was awarded a contract to install his lamp system in
the nation’s lighthouses, a task he completed in 1815.
In 1822, the Frenchman Augustin Fresnel invented a lens that captured
and focused a much larger fraction of the light emitted by the lamps
than did reflectors, hence producing a much brighter light. These
Fresnel lenses were quickly adopted in England, France, and other
European seafaring nations.
In the United States, however, Winslow Lewis worked successfully
to ensure that his system remained the preference of the Lighthouse
Service. He was supported in this effort by Stephen Pleasanton,
the fifth auditor of the Treasury Department, who was in charge
of the lighthouses. In 1838, as a result of complaints and criticisms
from maritime interests, Congress directed that Captain Matthew
Perry be sent to Europe to examine the lighthouses there and to
purchase two Fresnel lenses.
Working in France, Augustin Fresnel developed lenses that enveloped
a light source in all directions in what has been described variously
as a “barrel,” “glass keg,” or “gigantic
beehive of prisms.”6 By
combining the reflecting (light-bouncing) and refracting (light-bending)
characteristics of prisms above and below the light source, with
a strong magnifying lens at the level of the light source, the light
was concentrated in a narrow horizontal sheet of light.
Fresnel lenses were generally made in seven orders, or sizes,
depending on the intensity of light desired. The first-order lens
was the largest in common use (about 10 to 12 feet tall and 6 feet
in diameter) and was used for seacoast lights that needed to be
greatest distances. The sixth-order lens was much smaller and used
in harbors. There was also a three-and-a-half-order lens, used
mostly in the United States along the Great Lakes.
The design of the lens also accommodated different light characteristics,
which allowed mariners to distinguish one lighthouse from another.
The characteristics included the color(s) of the light, whether
it was a fixed or a flashing light, and, if flashing, the frequency
of the flashes. For a flashing light, the magnifying layer at the
center of the lens was replaced by a number of bull’s-eyes
spaced around the circumference, the number determined by the desired
frequency of the flash and the speed of the rotation of the lens.
The rotating lens would be floated in a pool of mercury, or mounted
on wheels and driven around by clockwork mechanisms. Color, or
dark intervals, would be created by introducing colored glass or
opaque sheets into the appropriate lens locations.
Captain Perry’s direction from Congress was to purchase a
first-order fixed lens and a second-order revolving lens. These
were installed in 1840 in the twin towers of New Jersey’s
Navesink Light Station at the entrance to New York Harbor, and both
performed very well. Despite this, only three light stations in
the United States were equipped with Fresnel lenses by 1851, each
directed by a special act of Congress.7
Stephen Pleasanton felt the lens needed more testing. Congress responded
in 1851 by establishing a board to investigate all aspects of aids
The investigating board found that the existing lighthouses south
of Navesink were virtually useless for mariners because of the
inadequate intensity and range of their lights. It also reported
that the few Fresnel-equipped stations were greatly superior to
any other mode of illumination and were much more economical to
operate than the best system of reflectors and Argand lamps. On
the basis of the board’s report, Congress reorganized the
Lighthouse Service and established a Lighthouse Board to administer
the aids to navigation. It also directed that Fresnel lenses be
installed in all new lighthouses and in existing lighthouses whose
lighting apparatus needed to be replaced. Within ten years, all
U.S. lighthouses had been equipped with Fresnel lenses.
Improving the Lamps
The Argand light-reflector system required as many as thirty lamps
to provide adequate light, while the Fresnel-equipped lighthouses
needed only one lamp. The several designs of lamps used in early
U.S. lighthouses were all variants of the Argand lamp in their
use of concentric wicks, but they differed from the Argand, and
from each other, in how the oil was fed to the wicks.
The fuel originally used was whale oil, thick for summer use and
thinner for winter. But in more northerly locations, even the thinner
oil congealed from the cold and required warming to enable it to
flow properly. A switch to sperm-whale oil provided a higher quality
fuel that burned well, but it became increasingly expensive as
fewer sperm whales were caught. The less-expensive rapeseed oil
used to fuel French lighthouses was phased out after a brief period
of use in the United States when it became clear that American
farmers were not growing an adequate supply of the wild cabbage
from which the oil was obtained.
The Lighthouse Board’s committee on experiments, headed
by Joseph Henry of the Smithsonian Institution, resumed experiments
with lard oil, which was cheap and readily available but had a
tendency to burn poorly. Henry’s experiments revealed that
the oil would burn well if it was preheated, and by 1867 lard oil
was being used exclusively in the larger lamps. In the 1870s, examination
of kerosene as a fuel led to its adoption in 1878 as the fuel for
the smaller lamps.
The last step in the search for a better oil light involved the
development of a wickless, incandescent, oil-vapor lamp in which
the kerosene was vaporized under pressure and transported to a
mantle where it burned with a bright glow. (This technique is used
today in Coleman camp lanterns.)
Experiments in lighting lighthouses with electric lamps began
in England in 1859 and in France several years later. The U.S.
Lighthouse Board kept abreast of these developments and carried
out some experiments. Probably the most visible electrically illuminated
lighthouse in the United States was the Statue of Liberty, lighted
by arc lamps in 1886. For a variety of reasons, including the great
expense of installing and operating generators and maintaining
the early electric lamps, only a few additional lighthouses were
electrified in the United States before the turn of the century.
The potential advantages of electrifying lighthouses drew increasing
attention in the United States during the early 20th century. Adoption
of electric light sources remained slow, however, because many
lighthouses were not conveniently accessed by power lines, and
it was not until the 1920s and 1930s that those lighthouses could
be provided economically with generators to supply the needed electricity.
Once electrified, the lighthouses could be automated. The advantages
were several: electric lights could be turned on and off by a timer
switch, the clean nature of the light eliminated the need for daily
cleaning of lenses and maintenance of lamps, and the mounting of
multiple lamp bulbs allowed burned-out lamps to be automatically
replaced. The need for resident keepers could not be justified
economically, as electrified lighthouses could be maintained by
visits on a weekly basis.
In 1939, responsibility for U.S. aids to navigation was assigned
to the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Lighthouse Bureau, which had succeeded
the Lighthouse Board, was abolished. Since the mid-20th century,
further technological developments have made the visible aids to
navigation increasingly less significant to mariners. These developments
include the establishment of radio beacons and the loran (long-range
navigation) system, which uses radio signals to let mariners know
where they are; and the GPS (Global Positioning System), which
relies on receivers that interpret special satellite signals to
determine position within a matter of a few feet anywhere.
The dating of old postcards, both in general and in this collection,
is of interest in several respects. The date when the view (and/or
the object) shown existed is of particular concern to historians
and students of the objects depicted, and is closely followed by
the interest of collectors in the age (and condition). Unfortunately,
postcards usually were not considered sufficiently important to
warrant being cataloged by their publishers. Therefore, the postcards
in this collection have dates assigned only to those postmarked
or otherwise legibly dated by their senders.
For those postcards not assignable to specific years, a system
based on that used by postcard collectors was adopted. This system
generally uses periods of time, or “eras,” defined
by the adoption of laws enabling the private use and printing of
postcards and by improvements in photography and photo processing,
printing technologies, and paper stock. The viewer interested in
more detailed information is encouraged to perform an Internet
search on <deltiology>, the word used in the United States
for postcard collecting. Additional refinements in this collection
rely on the dates of introduction in the United States of two-digit
postal zones (1943–1962) and postal zip codes (1963). A brief
summary of the “eras” used in this collection follows.
Post Card or Undivided Back Era (December 24, 1901–March
The U.S. government authorized the printing of “Post Card” or “Postcard” on
the undivided backs of privately printed postcards. The back was
used only for the mailing address; any message was to be written
on the front (picture) side of the card.
Divided Back Era (March 1, 1907–1915)
A change in U.S. law in 1907 allowed printing and use of postcards
with divided backs (with the right side for the address and the
left for the message). This left the front of the card completely
available for the view or artwork. Most of the postcards then were
being printed in Germany, which had the most advanced printing
methods. However, the threat of war and the onset of World War
I first reduced, then ended, the supply of postcards from Germany.
Early Modern Era or White Border Era (1915–1930)
After World War I, the German publishing industry never reclaimed
its prewar excellence, and most postcards were printed in the United
States. The lack of experience of American publishers and printers
led to reduced quality and higher costs. The “white border” on
many of the cards produced during this period was a method of saving
ink to reduce costs.
Linen Card Era (1930–1945)
Advances in paper and printing technologies resulted in the printing
of postcards on high rag-content papers with the appearance of
linen, and this permitted brighter colors. Although some cards
kept the white border, over time the images were extended to cover
the entire card face.
Real Photo Cards (1906–1940)
With the introduction of the Kodak folding camera in 1906, people
were able to take black-and-white photographs that could be printed
on postcard backs. Negatives were the same size as the postcards
and the image could be placed directly by the photographer, then
Photochrome Era or Chrome Era or Modern Era (1939–present)
The application of color printing technology to postcards began
in 1939, but was limited in production until the end of World War
II, after which color-photo postcards largely replaced both “linen” and
black-and-white photo cards.
accessed 12 December 2003.
2. Stevenson, D. Alan, The
World’s Lighthouses before 1820, London: Oxford University
Press, 1959, p. xix.
3. Ibid., pp. 86-87.
4. Bachelder, Peter D.,
ed., Lighthouses of the United States, rev. 2d ed., Freeport,
Maine: Harnett House Map Publishers, 2001.
accessed 17 March 2004.
magazine, “Science Makes a Better Lighthouse Lens,”
8. See note 5.