The best books on lighthouse history

The Books I Picked & Why

A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse

By Theresa Levitt

A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse

Why this book?

Fresnel lenses, invented by Frenchman Augustin Fresnel, are the crown jewels of lighthouse illumination. They not only greatly increased the intensity of the light, as compared with earlier forms of lighting, but also became one of the most important and strikingly beautiful inventions of the nineteenth century. Levitt’s luminous prose and great skill at storytelling makes this a fascinating and compelling read. It will make you look at lighthouses and Fresnel lenses with a well-deserved measure of awe.


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The Lighthouse Stevensons: The Extraordinary Story of the Building of the Scottish Lighthouses by the Ancestors of Robert Louis Stevenson

By Bella Bathurst

The Lighthouse Stevensons: The Extraordinary Story of the Building of the Scottish Lighthouses by the Ancestors of Robert Louis Stevenson

Why this book?

In the late eighteenth century, and throughout the nineteenth, the Stevenson family were great innovators in lighthouse design and construction. While not the first to successfully tackle the engineering challenge of building a massive stone lighthouse offshore, where it would be subject to the merciless thrashing of the ocean, the Stevensons did become the most famous and respected group of engineers doing that kind of work. Their signature lighthouses off the Scottish coast, including Bell Rock and Skerryvore, served as standards for lighthouse builders who followed in their footsteps. Bathurst’s elegantly written book is a captivating profile of this consequential family.


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America's Lighthouses: An Illustrated History

By Francis Ross Holland Jr.

America's Lighthouses: An Illustrated History

Why this book?

Although a bit dated, Holland’s book offers a wonderful and wide-ranging tour of the general and often contentious history of America’s lighthouses. It also includes profiles of many of the nation’s most noteworthy and important lighthouses, broken down by region, and presented in a way that highlights the reasons why they are so memorable. Numerous historic images enliven the text.


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Guardians of the Lights: Stories of U.S. Lighthouse Keepers

By Elinor de Wire

Guardians of the Lights: Stories of U.S. Lighthouse Keepers

Why this book?

At its core, the history of America’s lighthouses is about people. Undoubtedly the most important actors are the male and female keepers, who—often with the invaluable assistance of their families—faithfully kept the lights shining and the fog signals blaring. Guardians of the Lights presents a wonderful survey of many of the most interesting and unique lighthouse keepers through the centuries, focusing special attention on their noble actions in the service of saving others.


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Sentinel of the Seas: Life and Death at the Most Dangerous Lighthouse Ever Built

By Dennis M. Powers

Sentinel of the Seas: Life and Death at the Most Dangerous Lighthouse Ever Built

Why this book?

St. George Reef Lighthouse is located about six miles off Point St. George on the coast of Northern California, not far from the Oregon border. It is built atop, and partly chiseled into, a massive wave-swept rock. Finished in 1892, St. George Reef took roughly a decade to build, at a cost of $752,000, making it far and away the most expensive lighthouse ever built in the United States. The dramatic history of this iconic lighthouse—replete with engineering feats and tragic deaths—is well-told by Powers, who provides one of the best profiles of a single lighthouse ever written. 


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