Why we put together this Encyclopedia?

Romantic tales of life beside the sea, on ships, or living as a keeper in a lighthouse, have captured the imagination of writers poets and people in general since the first day man built a boat to float on water.

But there is nothing less romantic than the reality of  living  as a keeper, when considering the harsh way of life they had to endure. Yet ask these special people what they did for a job and all they say is that we kept the light lit.

So why put together a collection of stories and technical facts about lighthouses?
Over the past 400 years man has devised some ingenious methods for providing the mariner with a means to avoid hidden dangers while at sea. The majority of the ships wrecked occurred during the night-time, or in fog, adverse weather conditions and due to inadequate navigational aids.

Also the majority of the historical light stations were established in the ideal position for shipping, but located on isolated headlands, on islands or treacherous reefs and rocks. This brought about exceptional engineers and builders who designed and erected a lighthouse in seemingly impossible conditions.

Tons of granite were shaped into interlocking blocks and transported out to these inhospitable sites, where the builders braved the harsh forces of nature to form them into a tower that could withstand the untameable seas.

In many cases the builders literally carved out a headland and formed the masonry from the rock. There was no such thing as going to the local builders merchant and collecting so many tons of bricks for the contract. If you wanted a special piece of masonry you carved it out of the stone on site.

Once the tower was built inventors and specialist manufacturers supplied various pieces of equipment that would send a beam of light past the horizon.

Lamps, optics, fog signals, bells and other items that became common place in most households, were originally invented and tested in a lighthouse. Marconi tested his radio from a lighthouse in the United Kingdom. Yet today this does not seem to be all that important any more.

But the biggest impact on the lives of the keepers was the introduction of the telemetry system which was originally devised for use in space exploration. By using high frequency radio waves it was possible to monitor and control all of the equipment and mechanisms in a rocket from thousands of miles away. In a simpler form all of us now have a smaller system that we use from the comfort of our settees or arm chairs. We pick up this square or oval shaped piece of plastic with loads of buttons on it, then point it at the television, stereo or video recorder to change the channels ect.

With this in mind it now became a viable consideration by all of the Lighthouse Authorities around the World, that here was a way to provide a high quality service for the mariner at a more economical price.

For years the shipping industry had complained that paying for the upkeep of lights was ridiculous and unwarranted, especially with the modern satellite navigation systems. However the importance of the visual aid still remained to mark exactly the dangerous sectors around the coastlines of the World. Also both the day and night visual aids are still a priority for the small pleasureboatman and fisherman, especially as their electronic systems are not so reliable as those found on larger vessels. In many cases the cost of such sophistcated equipment is too expensive for these localised coastal vessels. Even with GPS, it is quite a confidence builder for mariners to be able to recoginse a friendly light and know exactly where they are.

Automation provided the means for reducing the light dues being charged to the mariner, but at the cost of the manual task and the traditional keeper. The telemetry system was put into full operation with all the various lighthouses in most countries monitored from a comfortable land based control centre. In most cases these centres were hundreds of miles away from the actual stations and this was where the helicopter proved to be important. Within hours of a problem at any lighthouse station engineers and maintainence crews could be air lifted to solve the problem.

Yet now there is another matter which is being addressed by all of the various Lighthouse Authorities and this is the utilization of the former dwellings and other property at the stations. No longer are the loyal keepers at hand to keep everything in pristine condition, except for the attendant who calls maybe once or twice a week.

Preservation groups, foundations, trusts and enthusiasts clubs have taken up the challenge to protect this important part of our historical heritage. These memories of days gone by must not be forgotten, nor the exceptional role played by so many men and women who provided a service that preserved the lives of every seafarer.

One by one these majestic structures are being restored by volunteers sponsored by funds raised at garage sales, car boot venues, fetes, donations and special events.

So the importance of this encyclopedia should now be obvious. If the memories of the past are not recorded today, how will generations to come be able to find out about a lighthouse, or what it was like to be a keeper?

The encyclopedia may not have all of the answers or information of the past, but with your help we will try to do our utmost to save and record as much as we possibly can.

Martin Boyle

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Copyright 2000 Martin Boyle