With all of the advanced navigation technologies we have today, it would be easy to assume that lighthouses have lost all relevance in the modern world. After all, why would we need these ancient forms of nautical navigation when we have GPS systems, radar beacons, and other advanced equipment?
While they are declining in relevance, the truth is that there’s still no substitute for the active aid that these shining beacons provide. There are still hundreds of lighthouses in the US that remain operational, with a few modern additions to improve their efficiency.
The most significant change for lighthouses came in the form of automation. In the past, lighthouse keepers would manage all aspects of maintenance, but the job was far from easy. Lighthouse keeping was more of a lifestyle than a job, and it required many sacrifices in terms of time and freedom.
The efficiency of automatic maintenance changed all that, rendering the role of lighthouse keeping largely obsolete. We now have complex maintenance systems that rely on machinery and electrification to keep the lights on, and there’s no need for human intervention when a bulb needs changing.
All lighthouses are automated nowadays, with the exception of one. The Boston Light is the only manned lighthouse in the US, thanks to a law that was passed in 1989. It can be found in the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, and serves as a common attraction for tourists who visit the area.
The US Coast Guard has converted most lighthouses to solar power, saving on maintenance and electricity costs. This was a cost-effective change for offshore lighthouses in particular, which used to have to rely on costly undersea cables to keep the lights on.
Additionally, instead of using traditional sources of light, most lighthouse lamps use LED light bulbs. These are more efficient and require far less maintenance than other light sources, but they do dull the ‘romantic’ aspect somewhat.
Nostalgia is a powerful motivator, but the necessity for change is undeniable. According to multiple sources, out of the hundreds of lighthouses that were once operational, roughly two-thirds of them remain active, and the number of lit lighthouses decreases with each year that passes.
Essentially, the recent history of lighthouses can be described as a balancing act between efficiency and a sense of heritage. Battery-powered LEDs may be less traditional, but the simple truth is that lighthouses are no longer the primary tools of navigation they once were, and it’s become impractical to use them in their classic capacity.
To say that all lighthouses lack relevance in the modern-day would be a lie, but it’s true that their purpose has altered to reflect the times we live in. Like street signs, they’ve become secondary sources of orientation, and most are better suited as tourist attractions and backup systems.
There’s a good reason why analog systems have managed to remain relevant. Electronics can fail for any number of reasons, and having a backup system that doesn’t rely on GPS or radar is a priceless counter to problems like computer crashes and weak signal strength.
However, that being said, the Coast Guard has reduced its budget for lighthouse maintenance considerably over the last few decades. Most lighthouse buildings have been donated or auctioned off to preservation societies, local governments, and private investors, and the Coast Guard is only responsible for the lights themselves.
Will we still need these physical navigation beacons in the future? Most countries don’t seem to think so. Several European nations have begun the process of extinguishing their lighthouses, keeping the buildings for their historical relevance but choosing to turn off the lights.
The US appears to be following a similar trajectory to its European counterparts, but there’s no telling what the Coast Guard will decide in the future. We may yet see the death of lighthouses in our lifetime, but it’s also possible that tradition and sentiment will keep them operational for future generations.
Even if all of our lighthouses go dark, the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act (NHLPA) of 2000 ensures that all historic light stations are preserved for their cultural and educational value, not to mention the potential recreational revenue for the tourism sector.
Combined with the work of preservation societies, the NHLPA serves as an effective compromise between progress and tradition. It allows us to appreciate how important lighthouses used to be, regardless of whether we use them or not.