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South Foreland Lighthouse
St Margaret's at Cliffe, Dover, Kent
South Foreland Lighthouse
associated engineer
Not known
Michael Faraday
date  1843
UK era  Victorian  |  category  Lighthouse  |  reference  TR361435
photo  Frank A.J.L. James
Although it went out of service in 1988, South Foreland Lighthouse remains a significant location on the British coast for two historical events — the installation of the first electrically-powered lighthouse lamp, and the transmission of the first ship-to-shore and international radio messages.
Situated at the eastern end of the famous White Cliffs of Dover, the present building is one a series of warning lights built over the years designed to keep vessels from the treacherous Goodwin Sands and indicate a safe passage into Dover harbour. The Sands are visible from the cliffs at low tide. They used to be known as the 'great ship swallower' and many have lost their lives there, not to mention the more than 2,000 vessels lost.
The first lights were fire beacons. The Romans replaced these with lighthouses on the cliffs, one of which remains and is now part of Dover Castle. There is a light recorded in 1367.
In the 1840s, two towers were built — the present South Foreland Lighthouse, which is 21m high and had a light visible for 26 miles, and a lower tower further towards the cliff, which is now in private hands. The second light was designed to provide ships with a bearing on the Sands. However, the Sands shifted and the second light was taken out of service in 1910.
Michael Faraday, who in 1831 had discovered electro-magnetic induction (the principle behind the electric transformer and generator) was Scientific Adviser to Trinity House from 1836 to 1865. In this capacity he oversaw the installation of an electric carbon arc lamp at South Foreland in December 1858. It had been developed by Frederick Hale Holmes and used a large electric generator based on the principle that Faraday discovered.
South Foreland not only became the first ever lighthouse to be lit electrically but it was also the first site where electricity was used practically for the provision of power. During the late 1850s and early 1860s, Faraday visited many times to check on how the light was working.
On Christmas Eve 1898, the lighthouse was the recipient of the world's first ship-to-shore radio transmission from the East Goodwin Lightship, nine miles offshore. The radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi used the lighthouse for his pioneering work on radio waves. The Lightship was also able to relay the first ship-to-shore distress message from South Foreland up the coast to Ramsgate to alert the lifeboat men when a steamship ran aground.
Even more impressively, Marconi achieved the first radio transmission across the English Channel on 27th March 1899, contacting the South Foreland Lighthouse from Wimereux in France — the first international radio transmission.
In 1904, South Foreland's fixed light was replaced with a rotating mechanism. Weights, weighing more than a quarter of a tonne, were hand wound each hour to make it turn. On the centenary of this change, soldiers from the 1st Parachute Regiment, based at Dover, reinstated the rotating optic and repaired the mechanism.
The lighthouse is owned by the National Trust and is open to the public.
Research: JJ
World Lighthouse Newsletter, Vol 2 Issue 2, summer 2004

South Foreland Lighthouse