What is a Lighthouse?

Mary McMahon

A lighthouse is a shore-based structure designed to assist sailors with navigation. The classic form is a tall tower with a lamp assembly at the very top. The lamp creates a focused beam of light, which is rotated across the water in a unique pattern. Navigational charts include a list of these patterns, allowing mariners to use lighthouses to orient themselves. In addition to serving as a navigational marker, it also warns of hazards or it may point the way to the harbor mouth.

Spiral staircase in a lighthouse.
Spiral staircase in a lighthouse.

The Lighthouse of Alexandria, on the island of Pharos, is the earliest known. It was built in the third century BCE to assist sailors. Lighthouses were also used in the Middle East, with several historical accounts suggesting that the Muslim world in particular had an extensive system. In Europe, many lighthouses and watch towers were built, especially by the Romans, and when the Americas were settled, these structures soon followed.

LIghthouse with stormy seas.
LIghthouse with stormy seas.

Traditional lighthouses included living quarters for the lighthouse keepers. Early lights that ran on oil lamps and hand wound clockwork required constant attention. Even as the systems became more automated, keepers were needed to keep the mechanics in order. Only in the later part of the 20th century did they become automated enough that keepers were no longer needed. Modern automated lighthouses are highly efficient, although not nearly as majestic as classic ones are.

Many castle towers were also used as signal towers during the Middel Ages.
Many castle towers were also used as signal towers during the Middel Ages.

In most cases, all of the lighthouses in a country are within the control of a government agency. The government keeps them in good working order, although it may turn over ownership to private companies in some cases. In the United States, many private associations have taken over lighthouses to maintain the historical integrity of the structures. It is not uncommon to find one with a bed and breakfast in the former keeper's quarters, or one that offers educational programs for children.

Better navigational charts and equipment on board ships have reduced the necessity for lighthouses. However, before modern equipment became standard, a lighthouse could be a beacon of hope, indicating a harbor, or a warning of peril, suggesting dangerous shores or offshore shoals. The emblem is often used symbolically to suggest guidance and hope by a variety of organizations. Christian organizations in particular favor the symbolism of the light leading followers to Christian faith.

During the Age of Sail, navigators would use the observed positions of lighthouses to triangulate the current location of their vessel.
During the Age of Sail, navigators would use the observed positions of lighthouses to triangulate the current location of their vessel.

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Discussion Comments


Many lighthouses have to be moved from their original locations because of beach erosion. The sea eats away at the beach over the years, and it has nearly consumed some lighthouse foundations.

I visited the Cape San Blas lighthouse in the summer of 2012, and there were efforts being made to move it further inland. There was a museum and a donation box, as well as a worker at the building who would tell you all about it. There were pictures of the shoreline through the years, and it amazed me how much the line has moved inland since the structure was built.


@healthy4life – They most likely wait for low tide. I visited a lighthouse in Tybee Island, Georgia that was out in the middle of the water, but at low tide, a small island emerged around it.

This island was made entirely of shells. It was the coolest thing I had ever walked on! I didn't know at the time that the island was ever under water, because low tide was the first time I had seen it.

The next day, we were driving over the bridge and saw that the shell island was completely submerged! Only the lighthouse itself stood above the waves. It was a weird feeling to suddenly realize that if the tide had come in while we were there, our boat could have been washed away and we would have been trapped!


I have seen several pictures of lighthouses that appear to be out in the ocean water. How do maintenance workers get to these lighthouses? It looks as if the entrance is covered in water, too.


The Biloxi lighthouse in the state of Mississippi where I live survived Hurricane Katrina. It was one of the few structures that remained standing after this powerful storm.

It came to be a symbol of strength and persistence. Our state issued license plates with the Biloxi lighthouse in the middle, and I think they were the most beautiful ones we have ever had. A pink, yellow, and purple sunset colored the background, making for a colorful plate.

I read that this lighthouse was made of iron. That's probably one reason it withstood so much wind and water damage.


I have always loved lighthouses. There are so many books and artworks that have worked to catch the mystery that surrounds this kind of structure. For myself, I always picture the lone lighthouse keeper whenever I see a photograph.

If you enjoy lighthouses you can buy books with beautiful photo collections in them and perhaps order a few art prints from online. J.M.W. Turner is one of the better artists in my opinion that has managed to capture the solitary figure of a lighthouse with great action in the sea.

Can anyone else recommend any artists or books that feature lighthouses?


I recently read a heartwarming story about a community who got together to raise a large amount of cash. They wanted to buy their local lighthouse, which was for sale as it was no longer needed by the authorities.

I hope they can do it, as these places are icons of a past time, when sea faring was much more dangerous than it is these days.


If you are interested in lighthouses there are actually some places in the world that let you stay in one, or in the light keeper’s home for a fee. These bed and breakfast style accommodations are unique because they let you see how the lighthouse works and give you some amazing views of the sea.

Nova Scotia in Canada is one of the more popular places to experience lighthouses and often funds from these kinds of special accommodation go to the restoration and maintenance of lighthouses in the area. I think it is a great idea to be able to stay in a unique place all while helping to make sure that the lighthouses stay around for generations to enjoy.


I really love nautical themed art, especially pieces with lighthouses. I try to buy lighthouse art to decorate my home. I have lighthouse replicas on my bar and lighthouse lawn ornaments on my lawn. I am obsessed with the sea and love to go out boating.

These lighthouses remind me so much of the sea which is why I love them so much.


I wanted to say that my son went to a lighthouse field trip and he absolutely loves it. It was a steep climb for him. He said that it was about 109 steps that they had to take to get to the top and some of his classmates were scared because it was a winding staircase and the inside was a little dark.

My son said that at the top there were a lot of windows, but it felt really warm. He would not stop talking about the experience because it was truly unique. They had a lot of lighthouse pictures with the whole class that the teacher forwarded to the parents. It was really nice of her.

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