The first lighthouse of the city, known as Madras Light, was built in 1796 on the roof of the Exchange (now the museum) building in Fort St. George.
Standing proud at 99 feet above sea level, it was a rather primitive apparatus comprising 12 lamps burning coconut oil and small country reflective mirrors that guided sailors in distress on the high seas.
By 1837, the number of ships anchoring off the First Line Beach increased and the lighthouse had to be shifted to a more convenient place.
In 1841, Captain J.E. Smith designed the city’s second lighthouse at Esplanade, a 120-feet-tall Doric column, whose ornamental structure stands in the Madras High Court complex till date.
When the High Court was built, its tallest minaret, 175 feet above sea level, became, in 1894, Madras’ third lighthouse. At this time, kerosene-fuelled lamps were used and the light that flashed had an intensity of 18,000 burning candles.
In the mid 1970s, the High Court lighthouse was replaced with a new-age modern lighthouse on Marina beach. Towering over the coast at 150 feet above sea level, this new lighthouse was the first one to be powered by electricity in the city.
Illuminated by a 3,000-watt bulb and numerous prism reflectors, the beam is visible at a distance of 20 nautical miles — 50 times more powerful than its predecessors. The Madras Light has indeed come a long way from its coconut-oil lamp days.