Today, welearn to be careful what we wish for. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Henry Winstanley was the
unlikely builder of the first Eddystone Lighthouse.
Born in 1644, he was a true creature of the
marvelous seventeenth-century. This was the age of
invention. It was the coming-of-age of modern
science. It was the epoch that would give us
Newton, Leibnitz -- and the steam engine.
Winstanley took up the trade of engraving. He made
architectural plans and renderings and he developed
a reputation for gadgeteering. He became wealthy by
operating an odd theatre in Piccadilly.
Winstanley's Waterworkes was a showplace
for wild combinations of fountains and fireworks.
He invested the wealth that it gained him in ships.
He ultimately owned five.
Although Britain had become the world's great
seafaring nation, her ships faced one deadly threat
-- the treacherous Eddystone Reef, fourteen miles
off the Cornwall coast.
Sure enough, Winstanley lost not one, but two, of
his ships on those rocks. After the second one, he
decided something had to be done. In 1696, he went
to the Admiralty with plans for a lighthouse; and
he convinced them he could build it.
Erecting a lighthouse right at sea level on a tiny
ocean-swept rock was a forbidding challenge, and he
had his problems. Just as he started supervising
the foundation, French privateers found him. They
destroyed all he'd done; then they kidnapped him.
The British negotiated his release and he went back
to work, this time with a new design. When he'd
finished his lighthouse, he found that it creaked
in the first severe storm. So he completely
redesigned and rebuilt it. Now it rose eighty feet
above an improved twenty-four-foot-diameter
It was a strange example
of Rococo -- colorful and elaborate. Winstanley
outfitted a fine luxurious stateroom within it, and
proudly told the world that he wished he could "be
in the light-house during the greatest storm that
That was 1703. Exactly three hundred years later,
in 2003, a new edition of Daniel Defoe's first
book, The Storm, was released. Defoe had
written about a very rare event that occurred just
as the lighthouse was finished. It was a hurricane
in Great Britain -- exactly the greatest
storm the British Isles ever suffered. It claimed
eight thousand lives and did incalculable damage.
So Henry Winstanley got his wish. He was in his
lighthouse that night of November 26th.
When the skies finally cleared, and ships reached
the Eddystone Rocks, Winstanley's great lighthouse
was gone. And he was gone with it. New lighthouses
were built, of course -- first of wood, then
concrete. Today, the fifth Eddystone Light
is an austere tower rendered in plain vanilla
concrete. Built in 1882, it stands 180 feet above
the sea. It is a cold functional structure --
surely a sad sight for the windblown ghost of Henry
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
The story of Henry Winstanley and his lighthouse is
widely told on the web. See e.g.:
The Wikipedia article
Three Men of Eddystone (song)
And you can learn more about the Defoe connection
from: C. Ash, The Havoc, Distraction, and
Fury. Science, Vol. 303, 5 March, 2004, pg
R. H. Weston, Letters and Important Documents
Relative to the Edystone Lighthouse, Selected
Chiefly from the Correspondence of the Late Robert
Weston, Esq. and From Other Manuscripts ...
London, C. Baldwin, 1811.
The following children's book spins its own story
around the lighthouse: W. H. Wood, The House in
the Sea: A Story of the First Lighthouse on
Eddystone. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce,
See also the Article on Winstanley in The
Dictionary of National Biography.