Although in Ancient times lighthouses were illuminated using wood or coal fires, by the 14th Century, the lighthouse at Portopí was already equipped with a lantern with glass panes and wooden frames in order to protect a light produced by twelve olive-oil burning lamps (sixteen by the 16th Century). In the same way, Spanish lighthouses built in the mid-19th Century also olive oil, it being an abundant raw material. In France rapeseed oil was used and in England spermaceti oil.
At that time the oil was transported to many of the lighthouses by boat, even to those such as Cap Blanc and Cap Salines that were not situated on islands. Later on, these form of supply was limited to the more isolated lighthouses.,
In the Balearic Islands changes in the use of fuel took place somewhat later than in Northern Spain. For example the changeover from olive oil to paraffin took place at the end of 1883 whereas at the lighthouse at Cabo Mayor in Cantabria had been converted in 1877. Although it may seem contradictory, the use of this imported fuel actually reduced the cost of marine lighting by 30% due to lower consumption.
Early problems consisting of frequent explosions in the lamps and the emission of noxious odours, both of which were caused by defective combustion, were cleared up by the use of Dotty lighters, so called after their inventor, an American sea-captain, who had come up with the idea in 1868.
In 1901 petrol was introduced into most of the lighthouses in the Islands and as a consequence incandescent lamps were gradually introduced that did not use wicks but rather mantle burners impregnated with collodion (a cellulose nitrate that enhanced the burners’performance).
The most commonly used lighting system in the lighthouses in the Balearic Islands was that manufactured by the Chance Brothers in Birmingham, England. Chance lamps were classified by the diameter of the mantle burner into three categories: 85mm, 55mm and 35mm.
The first lighthouse to use this system was that at Llebeig in 1910. The system used two tanks, one for the petrol and the other for pressurised air to pump the fuel up to the lamp. Fuel consumption was much greater than that required by wick-burners but range was much greater.
In 1912, the Swedish inventor Gustav Dalen was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for the combination of automatic regulators and gas accumulators employed in the illumination of lighthouses and buoys. These new devices meant that lighthouses and other marine navigational aids could now be automated with the consequence that the lighthouse keepers and their families who had been obliged to live on small islands in conditions of extreme isolation could gradually abandon these postings for destinations with more comfortable living conditions.
Dalen founded AGA that took over from the French companies Sautter, Lepaute and Barbier,Bernard & Turenne as market leader in the supply of rotating optical systems for lighthouses and beacons. From now on automated switching on and off of lighthouses and beacons became a priority for government. The key to this automation was the solar valve. The first automated acetylene gas signals in the Islands were at Dau Gros in Ibiza and the buoys of the Port of Maó in 1917. The last systems to use this mechanism in the Archipelago were retired from service in 1995.
After the first lighthouse in Spain to run on electricity was opened in 1888 at Cabo Villano in Galicia, this source of power became gradually more important in the field of marine navigational aids.
The first lighthouses to run on electricity in the Balearic Island were those at Botafoc in the Port of Eivissa, Cap Gros and La Creu at the Port of Sóller, Ciutadella and Maó in Menorca, as well as Portopí and La Riba at the Port of Palma, all of them electrified in 1918.
From then on, sooner or later all lighthouses and beacons have adopted the use of electricity in one form or another. At first electrical filament lamps were used along with automated lamp-changing devices, back-up generators and orbital timers for turning the lamp on and off. However many lights were converted directly from acetylene gas to solar power with the use of solar panels for the generation of electrical energy.
At the end of the 1980 and especially in the 1990s, electricity gave way to electronics and finally to computers. A the present moment, the most important lighthouses controlled by the Balearic Islands Port Authority have all been integrated in the network of remote controlled signals.
This system means that lighthouses are now under continued vigilance through computer systems that communicate with the remote control centre via radio-modem, mobile telephone or land line. This technology allows commands to be sent to the lighthouse ordering it to be turned on or off, system checks etc.