September 14, 2010

First recorded lighthouse in North America – 1716

This day in 1716 marked the completion of the first lighthouse in North America. It was built on Little Brewster Island in Boston, as Boston had become the commercial center of shipping in colonial days. A lighthouse is a tower or other sort of structure designed to emit light from lamps and lenses (or even fire) used as an aid to ship captains as they navigate, especially as they enter harbors or skirt around rocks and reefs. In 1719 the Boston lighthouse added a cannon to answer ships in a fog.

This lighthouse was destroyed by the British during the Revolutionary War, and it was rebuilt in 1783. Because of this, the lighthouse we see and enjoy today is not the oldest lighthouse on the continent (a lighthouse in New Jersey enjoys that honor).

I really like the name of the first keeper: George Worthylake. Isn't that a cool name for someone who lives on an island? Unfortunately, I discovered something not at all cool: poor Mr. Worthylake drowned while going back to the island—along with his wife, daughter, a friend, and an enslaved man who was rowing the boat. Benjamin Franklin wrote about this Lighthouse Tragedy while he was just 12 years old.

There is lots more interesting history about this first North American lighthouse, but how about some world perspective?

The first known lighthouse was the Pharos of Alexandria in Egypt. Ptolemy I and his son had it constructed between 300 and 280 BC (BCE). This lighthouse, which was between 383 to 44 feet tall (115 to 135 meters), was among the tallest human-made structures in the world for centuries and is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. It was destroyed by several bouts with invaders and earthquakes, being utterly demolished by the 1300s.

The oldest still-existing lighthouse in the world is considered to be La Torre de Hercules (Hercules Tower) in La Coruna, Spain. It was built by the Romans around 20 BC (BCE).

Lighthouse Quotes

Lighthouses are more helpful than churches. – Benjamin Franklin
Darkness reigns at the foot of the lighthouse. – Japanese proverb
Books are lighthouses erected in the great sea of time. – Edwin P. Whipple

For more...
  • Here is a lot of information plus an assortment of activities about lighthouses. 
  • Here is a quick video showing how a Fresnel lens, used in 19th-century lighthouses, works.
  • Here is a game about the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. 
  • Here is a lighthouse craft to try. 

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