Are Lighthouses Still Functional?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 14 October 2019
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The short answer to this question is yes, although modern lighthouses have departed radically from their historical counterparts. Many modern facilities are automated towers without a support staff, and they aren't much to look at. Their function has also largely been replaced by electronic guidance systems and other navigational tools, but lighthouses continue to play an important role in sea and air navigation around the world.

Lighthouses have been used for thousands of years as navigational aids; almost as long as humans have been sailing, the need for outside guidance has been obvious. Early ones were used to indicate rough shoals and other dangers, and over time, people also began to use them to orient themselves, recognizing particular lighthouses and using them as a frame of reference to figure out where they were. These structures have also historically been used to mark harbors where ships can dock.

The basic form of a lighthouse includes a tower, along with a maintenance facility. Historical ones provided housing for staff who kept the lights burning, while modern automated lights typically consist of just a tower. In either case, the signal of each lighthouse is different, and these signals are marked on navigational charts, allowing sailors to use the light patterns of regional lights to figure out where they are; this use has largely been supplanted, but it can be useful for casual sailors who don't have navigation systems.


The use of warning lights to indicate navigational hazards is very important, and it is one reason why lighthouses continue to survive. Although most sailors use complex electronic systems to pinpoint their position within feet (or meters), a lighthouse can be a helpful reminder of dangerous waters and, in the event that an electronic navigation system fails, a lighthouse can save lives by alerting sailors to rocks, shoals, and other dangers.

Pilots of small aircraft also use lighthouses, especially distinctive ones. They can act as a landmark or frame of reference when a pilot does not use electronic guidance systems. In this way, it serves the same purpose as it does for sailors, as the ground can be confusing when seen from the air.

In addition to shore-based facilities, mariners can also take advantage of offshore or “wave-washed” lighthouses, which are located in busy shipping channels and bays to assist with navigation. Sailors can also use range lights, sets of two or more lights that can be used to orient the ship in relation to the land. When a sailor is radically off-course, range lights can quickly identify the problem, allowing him or her to correct it before it becomes an issue.

Because traditional lighthouses are less used than they once were, many have found their way into private hands, to be used as private homes, bed and breakfasts, and so forth. Active ones typically remain in the control of government agencies to ensure that they are well maintained, and in some instances private owners cooperate with the government to keep a lighthouse working while using it for private purposes. Working facilities often welcome visitors, as part of a mission to keep the lighthouse tradition alive and well.


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