9 Illuminating Facts about Lighthouses and Their History

Lighthouses have been keeping ships clear of rocks for centuries. Here are some amazing facts about them.
Christopher McFadden

Unless you are a sailor, you probably never give the humble lighthouse a second thought. But they actually have a very interesting and amazing history -- not to mention role.

Here are some of the most notable milestones and facts about these amazing structures.


What are some fun and interesting facts about lighthouses?

So, without further ado, here are some interesting and fun facts about the wonderful world of lighthouses. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.

1. It all started with the Pharos of Alexandria

lighthouses alexandria
Source: The American Lyceum/Twitter

The Pharos of Alexandria, commonly known as the Lighthouse of Alexandria, is widely believed to have been the world's first lighthouse. Built sometime in the 3rd Century BC, this monolithic construction would become renowned around the ancient world.

Prior to its construction, proto-lighthouses consisted of simple burning beacons at the entrances to harbors. There is also some evidence of smaller stone proto-lighthouses being built in ancient Greek harbors prior to the great lighthouse itself. 

One of the 7 Ancient Wonders of the World, it is thought to have been between 100 and 140 meters tall. It was designed by Sostratus of Cnidus, and it stood for many years before being progressively ruined by earthquakes.

Today, the parts of the lighthouse still remain where the Egyptian Sultan Qaitbay built a citadel on the same site around 1480 AD.

2. The "Tower of Hercules" in Spain is one of the world's oldest intact lighthouses

facts about lighthouses spain
Source: Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez/Wikimedia Commons

During the height of the Roman Empire, lighthouses were built around much of the empire's important waterways. One of which was built on a peninsula of A Coruna, Galicia in Spain.

Built sometime in the 2nd Century AD, the tower stands at 55 meters tall and overlooks the North Atlantic coast of Spain. Known to the Romans as "Farum Brigantium," it is more commonly known as the "Tower of Hercules." 

It was renovated in 1791 AD and remains one of the oldest lighthouses in the world. It is today, a national monument of Spain, and was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June of 2009.

3. After the fall of Rome, many lighthouses fell into disuse, but some new ones were built

lighthouses hook

Source: Margaret O'Connell/Twitter

After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, many of its former lighthouses fell into disuse. While some rare examples did survive, like "The Tower of Hercules," most others were lost forever.

However, some lighthouses were built during the Medieval period, like the "Hook Lighthouse" in County Wexford, Ireland. Today, another example of one of the world's oldest lighthouses is the second oldest after the aforementioned "Tower of Hercules" in Spain. 

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It is thought to date to around the 12th Century AD, but local folklore attests that a local missionary, Dubhan, had used the site as a beacon many centuries before. Whatever the case, the current structure is well over 800-years-old and ticking. 

4. The Transatlantic boom in trade led to the lighthouses we know and love today

lighthouses victorian
A2 Slangkop Point Victorian Lighthouse, South Africa. Source: Daniel and Jordan/Twitter

Modern lighthouses of the kind we are all familiar with, began to appear in around the 18th Century. This corresponded with the growth in transatlantic commerce, and an ever-increasing need to keep trade ships safe from being wrecked along coastlines rather than to mark the entrances to harbors.

Advances in structural engineering and newer and better lighting technology enabled countries to build bigger and better lighthouses over time. Initially, solid fuels like wood or coal, or liquid ones like whale oil were used as the light source until the invention of the revolutionary Argand Lamp in the 1870s. 

Other improvements, like the first "catoptric" mirror reflector and "dioptric" lens system, were later added to many lighthouses in the late-1700s and early-1800s. 

5. The world's first lightship was established in the 1730s

lighthouses lightship
Source: Peterloo 1819 and 1820s/Twitter

The world's first dedicated lightships, or lightvessels, were the first established in the early-1730s. Called the Nore lightship, it was put to work at the mouth of the River Thames in England. 

While there are some hints of fire beacons on ships during Roman times, the first modern "true" lightship was invented by Robert Hamblin in about 1734. Advancements in land-based lighthouse construction, and numbers for that matter, eventually led to the decline in favor of lightships towards the end of the 19th century.

6. Have you heard of Eilean Mor Lighthouse Mystery?

lighthouse eilian mor
Sunset from Eilean Mor Lighthouse. Source: john dyer/Twitter

There is a story of a time when all three lighthouse keepers on the remote island of Eilean Mor disappeared in a single evening. The three men were the only inhabitants on the island.

The lighthouse keepers' disappearance was discovered when a relief lighthouse keeper arrived at the island on the 26th of December 1900. 

Later investigation of their logs detailed that a brutal storm had overwhelmed the island that lasted for several days. But, what is even stranger, is that occupants on a neighboring island, that had a clear view of the lighthouse, reported perfectly calm weather. 

Their bodies were never found, and to this day their disappearance is a complete mystery. The tale was later dramatized in the 2018 film "The Vanishing." 

7. Bishop Rock off the coast of Cornwall is a record-breaker

facts about lighthouses bishop rock
Source: thisisscilly.com

Bishop Rock is a tiny little island off the coast of Cornwall in England. The only man-made structure on it is a single lighthouse. 

Its diminutive size, relative to the size of its lighthouse, has earned the island the Guinness World Record of "world's smallest island with a building on it." The current lighthouse was built around 1858, but there was an earlier iron-construction building that was never completed.

It was washed away by violent seas before it could be completed. 

8. Russia has a score of nuclear-powered lighthouses

lighthouses russia nuclear
One of the now-abandoned nuclear lighthouses of the Soviet Union. Source: englishrussia.com

During the era of electrification that swept the world at the beginning of the 20th Century, many existing lighthouses were converted to electrical lighting. While most tend to be powered using combustion-engined generators, some are actually powered by nuclear reactors.

Some of the most notable can be found in Russia. During the Soviet-era, a chain of nuclear-powered autonomous lighthouses was built along the Northern Shipping Route. Running along the Northern coast of Russia, this part of the world has little to no daylight for a portion of the year.

Before the advent of GPS, this was historically a very dangerous route to take for many ships. To combat this, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union embarked on building a chain of new lighthouses to make the route that much safer.

Being so remote in places, many of these were powered by a lightweight small atomic reactor. After the fall of the Soviet Union, many of there lighthouses, and their reactors, fell into disuse and disrepair. 

9. Have you heard of the time that Finland built a lighthouse in Sweden by mistake?

lighthouses market
Source: tt_koski/Wikimedia Commons

And finally, there was a time that Finland accidentally built a lighthouse in Swedish territory. While this might sound like a pretty serious oversight, the reasoning behind it is actually fairly understandable.

Part of the border between the two countries crosses one island in an unusual way. Called Märket, the island was divvied up under the 1809 Treaty of Fredrikshamn.

Back in 1885, Finland erected a lighthouse on the highest part of the island, which was thought to be a no man's land by the builders. Sadly, under the treaty, this happened to have been on the Swedish side of the island.

Since then, in the mid-1980s, an agreement was made to change the border to ensure the lighthouse is now in Finnish territory.

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