If Only Lighthouses Could Talk
DOUBTLESS you have seen us stand sentinel on rocky coastlines around the world. It may have been in Canada, the United States, the windswept Cape of Good Hope, the scattered islands of the seven seas, or perhaps near the beckoning, sun-drenched beaches of Portugal, where I happen to be located. On a sunny day you can see me towering 177 feet above sea level on Europe’s westernmost point. I am a lighthouse.
My flashing light is a welcome sight to those on the dark, storm-tossed sea. Even the plaintive sound of my foghorn is comforting when I signal to the ears of those who cannot see. But have you ever wondered how we lighthouses came to be, and when? How do you think we arrived at our present vital status on the sea-lanes of the world?
Some Lighthouse History
One of my ancestors was numbered among the seven wonders of the ancient world. Around 280 B.C.E. Ptolemy II built a massive 400-foot tower on the island of Pharos, just off Alexandria, Egypt. Atop the tower a wood fire was kept blazing for the safe guidance of Mediterranean shipping. The Pharos of Alexandria, that ancient lighthouse, took its name from the island, and marked the birth of pharology, the science of lighthouse design and engineering. This ancient history also is reflected in the Portuguese word for lighthouse, namely, farois.
It was during the sixteenth century, however, when men began to open up trade routes, that we really became popular. One of the most ancient of my still-existing fellow lighthouses is to be found on the northwest coast of Spain at Corunha. It was reconstructed about 1634 C.E., and contains part of the tower built during the reign of the Roman Emperor Trajan (98-117 C.E.). That was but one of a goodly number that the Romans built around Europe’s coasts. After the conquest of Britain, for example, they built lighthouses at points now identified as Dover and Boulogne. My first American relative was established on Little Brewster Island, near Boston, Massachusetts, in the year 1716.
Tremendous strides have been made in pharology in the meantime. The many stages we have been through can be marked by the materials used for lighting. Starting with a wood-fire beacon, we have since then utilized coal, candles, oil lamps, petroleum and electricity. Today, radio beacons and atomic power are in use.
Location of Lighthouses
People often wonder what determines the location of a lighthouse. Some are relatively close to sea level, while others tower exaltedly over their surroundings like missiles ready for launching into outer space. There are several factors to be considered, not least of which is the immediate danger to be guarded against, such as perilous shoals or jagged coastline. Then, there is the general lay of the surrounding land. Quite vital, too, is the range to be covered by our light.
On the Tagus River, for example, lighthouses are not of great height because the range to be covered is only a short distance. My height, on the other hand, allows my light to be seen thirty to thirty-four miles out at sea on a clear night. It is true my tower is only twenty-two feet high, but it stands on solid rock 155 feet above the changing shades of blue and green in the water below.
The geographical range of a light depends on two things: its height and the height of the observer above sea level. For example, on a clear day let us imagine someone on the deck of a ship fifteen feet above the water surface. At that height the horizon is 4.44 miles distant. The horizon range of a light 120 feet above sea level is 12.56 miles. Thus if we add the two together we have the geographical range of the light, namely, seventeen sea miles.
To Be Seen and Heard
Since lives depend on our light, everything is done to keep it shining. Almost everything it takes to keep my light burning is provided in duplicate, and some items in triplicate. I have six generators, two of which are thirty horsepower. In addition to my use of batteries, I have another system based on petroleum.
My light is produced by a 3,000-watt bulb fixed centrally inside a five-foot-diameter, dioptric prism lens shaped somewhat like a barrel. That means it is the kind of prism lens that assists vision by refracting and localizing light. This lens is six feet high. Part of the lens is blacked out by a screen, so that the light is hidden for several seconds each time the lens revolves. In this way I produce four consecutive flashes of white light, each of three seconds’ duration, followed by six and a half seconds of darkness.
Some twenty principal lights cover coastline of Portugal, and each of them has its own distinctive personality. Experienced seagoers know our differing light frequencies by memory, and are able to tell immediately where they are located upon seeing the pattern of our flashes. For those of less experience or poorer memory, our codes are listed in the shipping manuals and charts.
Light is not our only gift to seagoers. When fog or other weather conditions obscure our powerful lights, we still have sound to offer. Landlubbers may not appreciate the monotonous boom of our foghorns, but it is sweet music to those enveloped in the eerie fog over a pitch-black sea. Then it is that another facet of my personality shows. I give three blasts of four seconds’ duration each, and then remain quiet for seventeen seconds. These blasts will pierce the stillness of a foggy night to a distance of seventeen miles.
Being a modern lighthouse perched on a strategic point of land, I have still another way to give ‘light’ to those in danger. I use radio beacons. Each of us lighthouses has his own radio or Morse code to identify who and where he is. My radio signals can be picked up by radio-equipped vessels up to a distance of fifty-four miles. By taking a reading or comparison with any other signal they can determine, within half a mile or so, exactly where they are. I send out my code every twenty seconds. When bad weather requires it, I beam out my much-appreciated signal every five seconds.
Our Devoted Personnel
Not many of us lighthouses can do everything for ourselves. Indeed, we appreciate the men who care for us and keep us ever ready to perform our lifesaving service. They have fine opportunities to see the beauty of God’s handiwork in the setting of a crimson sun over a silent, still sea or the power of the waves as they pound relentlessly at the rock-girt shore. It is said that to adapt to the loneliness and routine of a lighthouse keeper’s life one must be born to it or have ‘sailor’s blood’ in his veins. Is that true? No, because lighthouse keepers live under a wide variety of conditions.
Much depends on the location of the lighthouse. Here on Cape Rock we are only one hour’s drive from Lisbon. Thus the nine men who care for me are by no means isolated. However, there are many keepers whose only contact with the world is once a month or even less often when the supply ship makes its regular visit. The work of older, isolated lighthouses is now being done by fully automatic equipment that is operated by remote control from the mainland.
And the life of a lighthouse keeper is by no means dull. During the day, observations are made at regular intervals that contribute toward giving meteorological service. Information on the condition of the sea, the wind strength and direction, the barometric pressure and cloud conditions is gathered regularly so as to provide for weather forecasting. Aviation, too, benefits from our service, for I send out a light signal that serves as an indication to air pilots that they are now approaching the European continent.
Before concluding I must remind you that I am also a tourist attraction. So next time you would like to do something different, something educational, why not pay me a visit? Perhaps you cannot come to Portugal, but if you live near the coast, there should be one of my relatives close by. I am sure that you and your family would enjoy learning more about our family of lighthouses firsthand, and you would certainly get pleasure out of the wild, natural beauty that usually surrounds a lighthouse. You will find that the men who man us are a happy, friendly lot, and they will gladly tell you some more about the valuable services I perform, things that I would like to tell you myself—if only lighthouses could talk!