Pharology, the scientific study of lighthouses and signal lights, is first recorded in 1847 in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Arts of London. The author of the paper noted it had been “first introduced by the late Mr Purdy”. This otherwise unsung gentleman must have had in mind the famous lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, that was erected around 280BC on the island of Pharos, off the coast of Alexandria.
The word is well known among those whose hobbyist or professional interest lies in studying or looking after lighthouses. Now that all the British lights are automated, and the job of lighthouse keeper no longer exists, you might think that pharologists have less to interest them. Not so. Many of the lights are in remote locations that required great determination, skill and endurance to construct and special qualities in the men who were isolated on them for a month at a time. In Britain, the Association of Lighthouse Keepers helps keep knowledge of them alive.
A rare appearance of the word in literature is in E Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News of 1993: “Pharology. Science of lighthouses and signal lights. Dawn knows elevations and candlepower, stuff about flashes and blinks and buoys. Bore you silly with it.”
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