Biomimetics and the Eddystone Lighthouse

by Cowboy Bob Sorensen

This article is going to be mighty different from our usual fare. If you or someone you know is a lighthouse aficionado, the first part may prove interesting. 

Warning beacons are ancient, ranging from open fires to building more permanent structures when possible. The most famous lighthouses of old include the Pharos of Alexandria, Egypt and the Tower of Hercules (which still exists, albeit with reconstructions and such). Rebuilding happened frequently throughout history, and many restorations are done even now.

An unusual article with a discussion of lighthouses, followed by biomimetics on how John Smeaton engineered an Eddystone lighthouse glorifying God.
Smeaton Lighthouse at Eddystone
The word "lighthouse" is often used generically because although they were lights, not every one had living quarters. Some were visited by the keepers. Also, that word has connotations of the famous big towers, but there were other kinds. Let's look at a few on the Hudson River.

The "spark plug" tower at Tarrytown had living quarters. Look at the Saugerties Lighthouse, it strongly resembles a house (and is now a bed and breakfast, but you can still visit inside), and the Roundout Lighthouse in Kingston is also quite house-like. It resembles the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse quite a bit. The Stony Point Lighthouse is rather different. It's not all that tall, but it's on a hill that was important in the Revolutionary War.

Just to mention it, the Fort Niagara Lighthouse on Lake Ontario was something we walked past. I don't rightly recollect, but it seemed like it was in the parking lot. It was not open when we visited the fort. Here's a different view of the lighthouse, much better than we saw, plus a link to the live streaming webcam from the fort.

Although the word ironic is frequently abused and overused, I reckon it is correct to say it's ironic that I developed a fondness for lighthouses after I left Michigan, which has more than any other state. But the numbers are large because Michigan has two big advantages: being on the Great Lakes and comprised of two peninsulas. 

Big Sable Lighthouse on Lake Michigan
Trekking to the Big Sable Point Lighthouse

Speaking of the Great Lakes State, we saw a few on visits there. Three lighthouses are near Ludington on Lake Michigan. When I lived there, the North Pierhead Lighthouse was not opened to the public, and I don't think it was when we walked out to it. My wife and I visited the Big Sable Point Lighthouse (pronounced SAW-bull because French). Park, and walk the beach to get there.

The South Haven Pier Lighthouse

"Was it pier reviewed, Cowboy Bob?"

That was so bad, it was worthy of me. Anyhow, that one resembled a spark plug as well. Near as I can figure, the Grand Haven Lighthouse's tower had a dwelling that was completely separate. The St. Joseph Pier Lighthouse is very similar. The third one in the Ludington area, the Little Sable Lighthouse, is almost startling: Lookie there! A tower on the beach!

Interesting that many of these lights can be reached by foot but had resident keepers.  But then, there's a lot of work and responsibility involved.

View from lantern of Saugerties Lighthouse.
View from the Saugerties Lighthouse lantern

My wife and visited the eleven listed above and entered several, by the way. (Getting all the way into the towers can be distinctly uncomfortable.) The Esopus Meadows Lighthouse underwent massive renovations, and we were there for the big event when the beacon was reactivated. It now has limited access.

Okay, enough of the tour. 

Like many other lighthouses in history, the Eddystone was needed as a beacon but had setbacks. John Smeaton, considered the father of civil engineering, was queried about designing the third structure. English oak was important to the English navy, so he studied on God's design of the oak tree itself. The resulting structure was completed in 1759, and Smeaton gave glory to God. Using what exists in nature and drawing inspiration for human uses is the essence of biomimetics.

The longevity, steadfastness, and strength of the English oak, combined with history and tradition, brings this revered tree to mind as an important link to Eddystone lighthouse. 

. . . 

Recommended by the Royal Society, John Smeaton (8 June 1724 – 28 October 1792), credited as the father of civil engineering, was asked to design a new lighthouse. This lighthouse became the best known because of its influence in the development of concrete and, for the purpose of this article, on lighthouse design (figure 1). In his own writing, he describes in detail how his lighthouse shape was inspired by the oak tree.

. . . 

He took the shape of an oak tree as his inspiration. With a large heavy base deeply rooted in the ground to give it greater stability, it proceeded upward with a curved tapering pillar, all the while keeping the centre of gravity low. His designs show how he perceived that the structural integrity of this natural form would also be capable of withstanding the pernicious weather which a sea-based lighthouse would need to endure.

You can read the full article (which is only a little longer than my introduction) by sailing over to "Eddystone Lighthouse". By the way, there is a fourth tower there now, and remnants of Smeaton's tower still exist.