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History of Lighthouses

A light house is a tower on the sea-shore with a bright light on the top. The earliest light house was in Alexandria, Egypt, 2000 years ago. The archaeologists have found the remains of ancient light houses built by Romans. The light house is a warning signal for the sea going ships to avoid reefs, rocks and shallow water.

          In ancient times bonfires were lit on the hill tops to guide the mariners. This led to the development of light house. The light house also acts as an entrance marker to the ports especially in the darkness of night. The light house is not only a pragmatic thing but it has much intrinsic merit. Below the light house there is a keeper’s house, in which the person in charge of maintenance lives there day and night. Even in some light houses, kings have made luxurious keeper houses in which they were whiling away their time by merry making.

          Lesches, a Greek poet (660BC) mentions a light house at Sigeion, in the troad. This is the first light house maintained for the guide of ships. The light house popularly known as Pharos of Alexandria collapsed during an earthquake in the 3rd Century BC. The tower of Hercules was an old light house in Spain. It was much used by the Phoenician sailors. The evidence of light houses comes from the coins of Alexandria, Ostia and Laodicea in Syria. (The present areas of Syria, Lebanon and North Israel were the place of Phoenicia).

          In ancient times oil, wood, coal and oil of whale were used to burn the flame of light house which was being seen from long distances even 32 miles from the sea. From the sea a light house may be identified by the distinctive shape or colour of its structure. In the daytime it is applicable. But in the night the flame conveys the presence of light house. Even after the improved technologies among the mariners there is still a natural preference for the reassurance of a visual navigation. It has advantages of simplicity, reliability and low cost. Moreover, they can be used by ships with no special equipment on board.

          The Pharos of Alexandria stood 350 ft. The Romans erected many light houses during their expansion of empire. The Phoenicians who were trading from the Mediterranean to The Great Britain marked their route by the light houses. The early light houses had wood fires or torches in the open. After 1st Century AD candles of oil lamps were used in lanterns with panes of glass or horn. The lantern of Genoa in Italy (1139 AD) was such a light house. In France, the Roman tower at Boulogne was a light house, later repaired by the emperor Charlemagne in 800 AD. It lasted until 1644. Another lighthouse of France in the medieval period was on the small island on Cordouan, in the estuary of Gironde river. In this period lights exhibited from chapels and churches on the coast frequently substituted for light houses proper, especially in Great Britain.

From 1700 AD onwards, light houses were modernized in structures and lighting equipments. And after 1800 AD onwards wood fires were discontinued. Light houses were electrified. Electric lamps were used in the light houses (1858). In 1821 Augustin Fresnel of France produced the first apparatus using the refracting properties of glass. This is called dioptric system or Fresnel lens. This lens revolutionized the concept of illumination.

          In most countries light house administration comes under a department of central govt. It is financed by general taxation and sometimes funded from a levy on shipping. August 7 is observed as light house day.

          In our Odisha also there is a light house on the sea beach of Gopalpur, near Berhampur. This light house provides a 360 degree view of Gopalpur, the beach and parts of Chilika Lake. It was started in 1871. The light house as it stands today was commissioned in 1967. This light house survived two worst cyclones in recent times – one in 1999 – super cyclone and another in 2013, the cyclone Phailin. Once I had the opportunity to climb to the top of this light house. It was unique experience with intrinsic merit. There I remembered Emerson, the American writer, who has said – From the heaven of truth we shall see the world. Virginia Woolf, the woman novelist wrote in her stream of conscious novel – To the light house.

          On the whole, light house is a necessity for mariners to avoid ship-wreck. Sea journeys are dangerous journeys. So, light house comes to help by its light and tall structure. Modern equipments on board of the ship may replace light house. But modern science can fail due to bad weather and other reasons; but light house cannot fail. Light house is an eternal tower having eternal light beam always ready to assist the mariners from unforeseen dangers.

          So, light house is a must despite the modern and ultramodern scientific technologies. Science can betray; but light house cannot. At last, we may say man is essentially a child of broad daylight. In the darkness of night a ray of light is needed to see and that ray of light is actually of hope.

(The views expressed are the writer’s own.)

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Radhakanta Seth is an Income tax officer in Sambalpur.  He is a freelance writer and his articles have been published in some Oriya dailies like Sambad, Samaj, Dharitri, and English dailies like The Telegraph and in a sociological journal ‘Folklore’ published from Kolkata.

He can be reached at [email protected]

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