Lighthouses are towers with strong lights that help mariners plot their position, inform them that land is near, and warn them of dangerous rocks and reefs. They are placed at prominent points on the coast and on islands, reefs, and sandbars.
Every lighthouse has a distinctive pattern of light known as its characteristic. There are five basic characteristics: fixed, flashing, occulting, group flashing, and group occulting. A fixed signal is a steady beam. A flashing signal has periods of darkness longer than periods of light, while an occulting signal’s periods of light are longer. A group-flashing light gives off two or more flashes at regular intervals, and a group-occulting signal consists of a fixed light with two or more periods of darkness at regular intervals.
Some lighthouses use lights of different colors as well, and today, most lighthouses are also equipped with radio beacons. The three types of apparatus used to produce the signals are the catoptric, in which metal is used to reflect the light; the dioptric, in which glass is used; and the catadioptric, in which both glass and metal are used.
In the daytime, lighthouses can usually be identified by their structure alone. The most typical structure is a tower tapering at the top, but some are shaped like pyramids, and others look like wooden houses sitting on high platforms. Still others are skeletal towers of steel. Where lighthouses might be confused in daylight, they can be distinguished by day-marker patterns—designs of checks and stripes painted in vivid colors on lighthouses walls.
In the past, the job of lighthouse keeper was lonely and difficult, if somewhat romantic. Lighthouse keepers put in hours of tedious work maintaining the lights. Today, lighthouses are almost entirely automated with human supplying only occasional maintenance. Because of improvements in navigational technology, the importance of lighthouses has diminished. There are only about 340 functioning lighthouses in existence in the United States today, compared with about 1,500 in 1900, and there are only about 1,400 functioning lighthouses outside the United States. Some decommissioned lighthouses have been preserved as historical monuments.