Family history involves researching and sharing the social history of an area, including local buildings, customs, events, shops, sports, work, craftsmanship, traditions and more. It truly is fascinating, and readers are encouraged to document their own family history for future generations. We’re heading back on land with this week’s family history blog post. Our topic is lighthouses – iconic structures that play a key role in social history all over the world.
Pharology, or the study of lighthouses, was named after the lighthouse called ‘Pharos’ at Alexandria in Northern Egypt. Of course, a lighthouse’s main purpose is to help protect ships from an untimely end by marking key sections of shoreline and treacherous areas of jagged rocks. Lighthouses are critical pieces of a nation’s infrastructure, so much so that they are credited with preventing thousands of shipwrecks simply by looming over a rugged coast. These structures are often located in areas that are either well known for dangerous rocks OR placed in areas that look deceptively simple to sail past (read sand bars, hidden rocks etc). Centuries ago, lighthouses provided popular landmarks for ships battling storms and for captain and crew looking for visuals to confirm the plotted navigation.
Lighthouse Painting and Construction
We’ve all seen the bright red and white striped lighthouses but did you know that there are white, green and black spiral painted ones too? Were you aware that the different colors and patterns are to help navigators know where they are along a coastline? Early modern history lighthouse construction typically involved iron, oak and a bright lantern. It was quite the feat of early engineering to get these structures built on rocky outcrops at sea; without modern cranes, drilling technology and sailing vessels, it was a true act of bravery to construct a lighthouse whilst being constantly stung by lashing waves.
The art of painting lighthouses is a specialized skill indeed. Part hair-raising adventure, part adrenaline-pumping excitement, heading out to the most remote lighthouses, in the most turbulent seas, is not a task for the timid. Crews are taken out by helicopter to the lighthouse, built on some rocky outcrop away from shore. Safety is a priority as they are lowered to the worksite: people, gear and provisions. Paint takes a real beating when exposed to salt air and sea spray 24/7, and if not properly maintained, the underlying structure will be affected. It’s definitely a big ask to find paint that stands up to these severe weather conditions; intense coatings technology research over the decades has resulted in much more durable products.
The Lighthouse Keeper and Technology
Onsite lighthouse keepers were the norm prior to the advent of electrified lighthouses, and this role brought new meaning to the concept of ‘remote job’. Keepers often led a lonely existence, secluded on a rocky outcrop for weeks or months at a time, with only seagulls, sparse wildflowers and seals for company. Some had spartan accommodation inside the lighthouse, whereas others had a cottage nearby. The howling winds and crushing seas would have made sleep a difficult achievement. The keeper’s main job was to keep the light functional and, as centuries progressed, modern lenses polished. They also take weather readings, assist ships in distress, do grounds-keeping and some even run a modern gift shop!
Early lighthouses used candles, open coal fire, lantern and oil lamps. Smoke inevitably caused problems keeping glass clean. By the end of the eighteenth century, curved reflectors concentrated the light into a single beam. New science incorporated prisms and better lenses. By the second half of the nineteenth century, electricity was introduced to lighthouses and was here to stay. GPS-equipment also aids ships with more precise navigation as opposed to trying to see a beam of light through a dense fog. With the advent of electricity and automation came less need for onsite keepers; today some decommissioned lighthouses are converted into tourist attractions. Strategically important lighthouses still have a human keeper taking care of the property, however, this is usually done by a nation’s military personnel.
An absolute favorite ‘dark and stormy night’ legend concerns a ship’s stern captain insistent that an oncoming vessel change its course to avoid a collision. The other party politely refused, again and again. The ship’s captain got exasperated to which the other party gently responded, "Sir, this is the lighthouse. Your move."
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Pearson, L.F., “Lighthouses”, Shire Publications Ltd., Buckinghamshire, UK., 1998.