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Pharology - History - The Origins of Lighthouses

E01: The Origins of Lighthouses

The lighthouse seems to be a product of Western culture, certainly in the form we know of today, modelled, as they are, on the Pharos of Alexandria. We have only scant evidence of the construction of any forms of ancient lightstructure in a land beyond the broad Mediterranean region, despite the fact that advanced early cultures have existed in Asia throughout the last 3,000 years. It may be that firm evidence remains to be uncovered in ancient, as yet untranslated, manuscripts of ancient Eastern cultures, but it has not yet been found. Despite the considerable use of lighted aids to navigation in the West, first due to the Mediterranean cultures from the third century BC to the fifth century AD, and then in a second period starting in the eighth and ninth centuries, there is no equivalence in the East, where the coastlines, islands and isolated rocks remained dark until the nineteenth century. Then Europeans, and in particular, the British, instigated a system of navigational aids to mark the routes to their overseas colonies and trading ports. This article discusses the export of lighthouse technology to China, Japan, the Indian sub-continent and the countries of Southeast Asia by European nations during their expansionist period of history from the fifteenth to the early twentieth centuries. It is true that lighthouses in North America were exclusively the result of the arrival of western culture and that is not to be discussed further here. Many of the points of discussion are equally relevant to the development of lighthouses in Africa [2] and South America too, but these will be specifically addressed in separate articles.

There is plenty of evidence that ancient peoples made extensive use of sea routes without recourse to the construction of lightstructures. (This has been discussed extensively elsewhere [1]. Readers should also note our distinction between the words lighthouse and lightstructure, as defined in another paper [2].) It is clear that ancient cultures recognised the value of the distant red glows from volcanoes as aids in navigation. We might even speculate that because there were more active volcanoes in the Mediterranean at the time (Etna, Vesuvius, Stromboli, for example), this was the reason why the concept of lighthouses came to be embodied in the great Pharos at Alexandria around 283 BC. Ancient peoples could also, therefore, have used crude wooden lightstructures lit by fire, but to do so implies a presence by members or agents of that culture on the shore, that is, a period of continuous expansion and settlement rather than mere exploration In the early years of the European exploration of the Pacific many locations were visited for the first time, documented and then vacated, then to remain undisturbed for many decades - even centuries in some cases. There is no reason whatever to suppose that lightstructures would have been built until ports and headlands had become frequently visited points on the trade routes and had friends living ashore to keep lights burning on a regular basis. Thus, it did take a considerable time for lighthouses in the form we know them today to emerge.

Civilisations needed to develop to a certain stage of maturity and stability before construction of lighthouses was socially worthwhile [1]. Clearly, the development of lighthouse networks is best encouraged in atmospheres of peace and harmony, not in periods of hostility and war when they might prove helpful to an enemy. Thus until the levels of peaceful commerce increased and the levels of hostility reduced sufficiently, lighthouses could not become a part of stable cultures. In particular, a reasonably high level of activity in sea-borne trade was a necessary, but not sufficient, criterion.

In a thoughtful work of 1969, Clark [7] discussed his ideas about the principles and characteristics of civilisation. It might seem a truism to say that people naturally prefer civilisation to barbarism, but the arguments are subtle. There have been long periods when humankind has existed in a state of barbarism, a condition that requires little to survive.

Clark: “Quite apart from the discomforts and privations, there was no escape from it. Very restricted company, no books, no light after dark, no hope.”

After the downfall of Rome, and the commencement of the Dark Ages in Europe, those seeking a civilised existence were forced to the very edges of the known world – the most inaccessible fringes of Cornwall, Ireland and the Hebrides. Unlike barbarism, which is minimalist, civilisation produces an insatiable desire to build, in both a physical and a mental sense. Civilisation encapsulates a sense of permanence. Members of barbarian cultures felt no need to look forward, but were in a continual state of flux. It never occurred to them to build beautiful homes or write books. It certainly never occurred to them to build lighthouses.

The idea of building a lightstructure, and appointing people specifically to keep the lights burning at night, took a long time to mature. Even by the most optimistic analysis, the first lighthouse was built around 1200-1000 BC, but it was not until Roman times (50-0 BC, by which time the Roman Empire was past its 'sell-by' date) that a sufficient number had been built for us to say that a network of lighthouses had been established, using the Alexandrian Pharos as a model. During their long period of success, the Phoenicians were probably the most advanced seafaring civilisation the world had seen, yet during the years 1200 to 333 BC they never established a network of lightstructures. Cadiz and Carthage were the only possible locations in which such structures may have been built, but this is unproven [1].

In Asia, civilisations developed with rather less emphasis on sea-borne trade than seemed to be the case in the wider Mediterranean in the years before the birth of Christ. It is believed that early types of fire towers were indeed used in Japan and China for navigational purposes. Indeed, several towers, or pagodas in China, still exist that are associated with early use in this way [8]. Indeed, it is even proposed that two such towers were used in an alignment for guiding ships into a safe channel. However, there seems to have been no tradition of construction of artificial navigational aids. Not until very recent times did the construction of lighthouses occur. When it did it was always closely associated with the waxing of European empires, which, from a British perspective, means the nineteenth and early twentieth century, most of that time spanning the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). This is very late in the overall period of history that we consider here. Navigation was a crude and imperfect science until the 18th century, largely because of the difficulty in determining longitude.