The World's Lighthouses: from Ancient Times to 1820 by David Alan Stevenson, David Stevenson |, NOOK Book (eBook) | Barnes & Noble
The World's Lighthouses: From Ancient Times to 1820

The World's Lighthouses: From Ancient Times to 1820

by D. Alan Stevenson

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In use since the dawn of recorded history for the guidance of ships at sea, lighthouses have long been a source of inspiration and fascination. Indeed, a lighthouse ranked among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Lighthouse lovers will welcome this new edition of a classic volume — a superb, profusely illustrated survey of lighthouses from earliest times


In use since the dawn of recorded history for the guidance of ships at sea, lighthouses have long been a source of inspiration and fascination. Indeed, a lighthouse ranked among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Lighthouse lovers will welcome this new edition of a classic volume — a superb, profusely illustrated survey of lighthouses from earliest times to 1820. Noted authority D. Alan Stevenson — a relative of Robert Louis Stevenson and member of a clan of lighthouse engineers — drew upon records from the family firm and old books now inaccessible to most readers to write this highly readable, extensively researched account.
Chronicling both the construction of the towers as well as the methods of illumination, the text traces developments from the open fires of thousands of years ago. The introduction of candles and oil lamps, followed by parabolic reflectors and the world's first revolving light in 1871, culminates in the 1819 construction of Bell Rock Tower, the last of the great isolated lighthouses built before steam vessels were available to transport building materials. In addition to a wealth of technical data, the text is enhanced by more than 200 rare illustrations and designs. Depictions include such seamarks as a Venetian oil navigation light (c. 1400), the Pharos of Ostia (c. 1575), the Messina lighthouse (1674), the Dungeness lighthouse (c. 1690), and Australia's Macquarie lighthouse (1817).
Maritime historians, lighthouse enthusiasts, and anyone who has ever felt the romantic lure of these lonely sentinels by the sea will prize this remarkable work.

Editorial Reviews

D. Alan Stevenson (1815-1886) presents a well-illustrated survey of lighthouses, describing the transition from the wood fires of antiquity to the reflector lights of 1819. Topics include, for example, the use of candles and oil lamps, the invention of the parabolic reflector, and the 1819 construction of Bell Rock Tower. The volume is a reprint of a 1959 Oxford University Press edition titled . Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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The World's Lighthouses from Ancient Times to 1820

By D. Alan Stevenson

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-15708-5



The first use of seamarks cannot yet be placed earlier than 300 B.C. when the Egyptians erected the Pharos of Alexandria. Of lighthouses which served shipping between that date and 300 A.D., some 200 representations have been found and about 30 lighthouses have been identified at particular sites within the Roman Empire. Their illumination came from wood fires and torches burning in the open. When the Empire dissolved, references to seamarks ceased.

There is no doubt that the earliest seamarks were beacons, either cairns of stones or wooden spars set up on the shore, on rocks and on sandbanks, and buoys made of pieces of wood anchored by a rope tied to a stone and dropped on the sea-bed. These simple types are used still at small harbours and along coasts in many parts of the world: they serve well as warnings to boats of dangers that are not obvious, such as rocks and shelves lying just below the water surface. Dom Bernard de Montfaucon, who published in 1724 a many-volumed encyclopædia of classical art entitled L'Antiquité Expliqué, reproduced an early representation of a primitive port where a beacon of stones and timber is associated with a quay and boats. More elaborate beacons such as masts or pillars with top-marks of various shapes fulfil many navigation requirements admirably and are used in all countries at the present time.


Fears of storms and of adverse winds and the peril of shipwreck upon hostile shores retarded the development of early navigation. Probably the first fires to help local boats were lighted on the shore or on the towers built to defend the entrances to ports. To show lights every night would mark a port for attack so, as now, they were exhibited only in times of peace.

Early sailors in the Mediterranean Sea must have benefited much from the direct blaze, the reflection from the clouds and the smoke from Etna, Stromboli and Vesuvius, which gave direction to ships at a considerable distance and, indeed, served as lighthouses. Possibly the idea of setting a fire and smoke on a height so that it could be seen from afar originated in the flaming summits of these volcanoes.

The first definite event in the history of seamarks is the construction of the Pharos of Alexandria in the 3rd century B.C. Authentic records of that period bear out the splendour of that building and acclaim the advantage to shipping of the fire of wood that burned on its top. It seems unlikely that the construction of a lighthouse of such tremendous proportions and the maintenance of its great fire would have been contemplated had not lighthouses already proved of value to ships, and persistent penetration into the mists of Antiquity may yet reveal earlier instances of navigation lights.


In the 18th century, the study of mythology was a necessary part of a liberal education and antiquaries, when interpreting the past, did not hesitate to draw freely on their imagination when facts were not obvious. To the less credulous, the Cyclops, the monstrous cannibals each with one huge eye, who, it was believed, dwelt in Sicily or in the depths of Etna where they manufactured lightning and thunder-bolts for Zeus, were fanciful allusions to actual lighthouses.


Many modern writers have accepted, with apparently little question, statements that about 1300 B.C. the Trojans maintained a lighthouse at Sigeum, near Troy, in the north-west corner of Asia Minor, and that Homer alluded to lighthouses about 800 B.C. These statements are incorrect.

The Sigeum story is based on an account by Montfaucon in 1721 of a tablet dating from about 50 B.C. which was discovered in Rome in the 17th century. It depicted a pillar, with a squat conical top, which he illustrated. An inscription on the tablet explained that the outline accorded with a description by Lesches, a poet of about 1200 B.C. whose writings have long been lost. Montfaucon, who wrote in French, called the pillar a phare but as he used the word phare to indicate not only a lighthouse or beacon carrying fire but also the unlighted stone-and-timber beacon shown in his representation of an early port, it is clear that he did not intend to give the impression that the Sigeum tower carried a light: he concluded from its proximity to the coast that it served as a navigation beacon. More recently the pillar has been explained as a symbol for the tomb of Achilles, certainly not as supporting the idea of an early lighthouse having been established at Sigeum.


The suggestion that Homer alluded to lighthouses in both the Iliad and the Odyssey appeared first during the 19th century but examination of the Greek texts shows that it cannot be substantiated. The passage referred to most often in this connection is one in Book XIX of the Iliad which has been interpreted as describing Achilles' polished shield as being so bright that its reflection resembled the flash of a beacon fire or lighthouse. The translation from the Greek text is as follows: 'As when from the sea, sailors see the light of a fire that burns high on the mountains in a lonely steading, while, against their will, the breezes carry them over the fishy sea away from their own folk; so, from Achilles' shield, bright and beautifully engraved, the light streamed to heaven.' Other translations of the passage, such as George Chapman's robust version of 1616, offer no support to the idea that Homer referred to lighthouses, though the following lines by Alexander Pope, who sought about 1720 to reproduce Homer's masterpiece in a poem in English and was unfettered by a call for an exact translation, may have been responsible unintentionally for the suggestion of a lighthouse:

'So to night-wandering sailors, pale with fears,
Wide o'er the wat'ry waste a light appears,
Which on the far-seen mountain blazing high,
Streams from some lonely watch-tower to the sky.'


Most lists of the Seven Wonders of the World include the Colossus of Rhodes. This bronze figure of Apollo, over 100' high, which the sculptor Chares took several years to construct, stood near a harbour in the island of Rhodes in the eastern Mediterranean. The Greeks, who were exacting critics of sculpture, thought highly of this statue which endured 56 years and was cast down by an earthquake about 224 B.C. A traveller in the Ist century A.D. described the strengthening blocks of stone which he had seen within the broken limbs. About 700 A.D. three hundred tons of its metal were sold as scrap and transported to Alexandria. Not until the 16th century was a story put about that the figure bestrode the harbour entrance so that ships in full sail could pass between its legs. Such a proceeding is not impossible, as these vessels were very small, but statements that navigation lights were kept burning in its eyes or that it held a flaming beacon in one hand are less probable. Indeed, there is no evidence to justify inclusion of the Colossus among ancient lighthouses.


But the authenticity as a lighthouse of the Pharos of Alexandria in Egypt is beyond question, and by its fame the word pharos or pharus came to be adopted by the Romans and Greeks, modified slightly in all languages derived from Latin, to denote a beacon, though not necessarily one bearing a light—hence phare, farol and faro.

Despite numerous references in ancient times to the Pharos of Alexandria, it has not been possible to determine its dimensions, as contemporary writers are lacking in details. Medieval records are contradictory. But modern archaeologists believe that it rose about 450' from a base of 100' square. The shores of Egypt are low-lying and, for sufficient geographical range, the light required to be raised. To a seaman's eye 15' above sea-level, the height of 450' would give a range of 29 miles and 50' more or less would alter the range by 1·5 miles. A tower of 200' would give a range of 21 miles.

After many years spent in preparing materials, the lighthouse was completed about 280 B.C. on the island of Pharos at the west entrance of Alexandria harbour. The building consisted of several storeys of white stone contracting in diameter towards the top where the fire burned at night, perhaps in a kind of lantern or with a roof to shield the flames from rain. The collection, payment and transport of fuel and lifting it to the top of the tower must have presented difficulties, perhaps solved easily by slave labour. Recent drawings, based largely on measurements taken on the spot in 1165 A.D. by an Arabian observer, considered reliable, show a tower of three storeys, the bottom being square in section, the middle octagonal and the top circular. The geographer, Edrisi, who visited the tower about 1150, before its destruction, described how the stones were strapped together by metal ties and declared that it was reduced in diameter as it rose upwards until at the top its pinnacle could be clasped by a man's arms. The stairs were well-lighted by windows. Many attempts have been made to depict the Pharos according to the information available. Such reconstructions are shown in figures 3 (a), (b), (c) and (e). The Peutinger Table from which figure 3 (d) is taken was a copy made about 1300 of an early MS. The copper coin in figure 3 (f) was issued in Alexandria about 150 A.D. The letters indicate the year of minting and the assay.

The lantern on its top was destroyed about the 8th century, but much of the tower survived in its original form until about 1200, when it was overthrown by an earthquake. Its remains were visible as late as 1350. The fact that it endured as a great mass of stone for some 1600 years gives the impression that it may have been a structure even larger than the dimensions suggested by archæologists. The ancients considered it a stupendous work and during many centuries geographers and historians included it in their differing lists of the Seven Wonders. To be bracketed therein with the Great Pyramid which contained ninety million cubic feet of stone, a quantity calculated as sufficient for building a wall round the French coasts, gives assurance that it was indeed of vast size and not merely the largest building in Alexandria.

Pliny, who perished in 79 A.D. while attempting to view closely the eruption of Vesuvius that overwhelmed Pompeii, refers thus to the Pharos (according to a translator of 1601): 'Over and above the Pyramides above said, a great name there is of a tower built by one of the kings of Aegypt within the Island Pharos, and it keepeth and commaundeth the haven of Alexandria, which tower (they say) cost eight hundred talents the building. And here, because I would omit nothing worth the writing, I cannot but note the singular magnanimitie of kind Ptolome, who permitted Sostratus of Gnidos (the master workeman and architect) to grave his owne name in this building. The use of this watch-tower is to shew light as a lanthorne, and give direction in the night season to ships, for to enter the haven, and where they shall avoid barrs and Shelves.' A different version of this story is that on top of that inscription on stone, Sostratus fixed plaster on which he cut Ptolemy's name, knowing that in a few years the plaster would disintegrate and the concealed inscription with his own name would be revealed. Pliny adds that some mariners found the lighthouse misleading: 'This is the daunger onely, lest when many lights in this lanterne meet together, they should be taken for a star in the Skie, for that afar off such lights appears unto sailors in manner of a star.'

In the course of its long existence the Pharos was the subject of many absurd stories, such as that from it enemy vessels could be detected at distances several hundred miles. The magic power which produced such an extraordinary effect was supposed to lie within a mirror on the top of the tower and it is certainly not impossible that a kind of camera obscura could be constructed with mirrors which would show ships at a distance of 25 miles. According to another story, the tower contained mirrors which made its fire visible to ships at a distance of 100 miles. But though mirrors could increase the candlepower of oil lamps, if such were used, and extend their effective range to a degree that would appear astounding to the ancients, they could not extend the direct visibility of either a wood fire or an oil lamp beyond the geographical range limited by the height of the tower. Perhaps the reflection in the sky of the lighthouse fire during some uncommon atmospheric condition accounted for the phenomenon. No writer who mentions the mirrors appears to have seen them: it was said that they had been destroyed by 'the intriguing arts of the Christians' or had been seized and removed while the captain of the port was attending a feast on board a vessel pretending to be friendly.


The best-known lighthouse of Antiquity, after the Pharos of Alexandria, was the pharos of Ostia, which had only one-quarter of its height. It, too, consisted of several storeys which diminished in diameter towards the top and consequently it is impossible to distinguish by shape alone between representations of the two lighthouses. Nor does the apparent height of a pharos provide a clue to its identity: the Romans were not bound by tradition to use the same scale when depicting adjacent objects.

Ostia being the port of Rome and the chief centre of over-seas trade, its pharos became ultimately of more importance to navigation than that of Alexandria. As completed by the Emperor Claudius about 50 A.D., Ostia ranked as one of the finest harbours built by Roman engineers. An island breakwater covered the entrance between two long piers, with the pharos in its centre, decorated with various orders of architecture and containing rooms and staircases designed for the care and defence of the port. Surrounding the lighthouse, galleries, raised high above the sea, commanded the approaches. A huge statue of the Emperor fronted the tower and the whole produced an imposing effect on navigators. After nightfall, the fire lighted on the top of the lighthouse could be seen afar by the seamen bringing cargoes from all quarters into the heart of the empire.


A pharos at Caepio in Spain, the forerunner of the present lighthouse of Chipiona, is described by the geographer Strabo about 20 B.C. as standing on a rock washed on all sides by the sea and resembling the Pharos of Alexandria. He said that this beacon preserved vessels from the sunken rocks and shallows at the mouth of the river Guadalquivir.

The more famous lighthouse of Corunna near Ferrol on the north-west coast of Spain is recorded in the 4th or 5th century A.D. as being useful for ships sailing to England. It was built by either the Phoenicians or the Romans and has been called by various names, such as the Tower of Hercules and the Iron Tower or Tour de Fer, the latter possibly due to confusion of fer (French for iron) with faro (Spanish for lighthouse) or with Ferrol. The poet Southey recorded a tradition that Hercules founded the tower and that by his magic art he 'composed a lamp burning continually day and night without putting of anything thereto, which burned afterwards the space of 300 years. Moreover, upon the pinnacle or top of the tower he made an image of copper looking into the sea, and gave him in his hand a looking-glass having such virtue' that hostile warships could be detected as they approached. But, according to the story, an enemy, knowing this, camouflaged his galleys with green boughs so that only trees appeared in the glass: thus he seized the tower without warning and destroyed the lamp and mirror.


After the completion of the Pharos of Alexandria, seafaring increased as Rome expanded and enforced peace in the known world: ports were constructed on the European and African shores of the Mediterranean and phari were established as far away as the Black Sea and the Atlantic. Some thirty lighthouses are known definitely to have been in service before 400 A.D.—that is, before the Roman Empire began to decline.

About 40 A.D. the Emperor Caligula, having brought his army through Gaul or France, arrived at the Straits of Dover. There he assembled his men in battle array on the Gallic shore and in his crazy manner proclaimed a Victory over Neptune. He ordered his soldiers to adorn their helmets with shells and seaweed as the spoils of the ocean and apparently directed that a tower should be raised on which a fire should be kept burning to assist navigation. This tower is supposed to be the one at Boulogne which was known subsequently as the Tour d'Ordre. Several Roman medals depict an individual departing by sea from the neighbourhood of a lighthouse similar to those of Alexandria and Ostia. One such medal of about 185 A.D. has been identified as showing the Emperor Commodus embarking on an expedition to Britain with the lighthouse of Boulogne as the point of departure, having made sacrifices to the gods to obtain success.


Excerpted from The World's Lighthouses from Ancient Times to 1820 by D. Alan Stevenson. Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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