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Chronology of Early Lifesaving


300 BC

Pharos, the massive lighthouse at Alexandria, Egypt, is built to guide seamen.

46 BC

Roman law establishes regulations requiring assistance to shipwrecked seamen and provides that owners of vessels have one year and a day to file claims for recovery of wrecked ships and cargo.

1484 AD

Richard III of England provides that those taking advantage of shipwrecked seamen shall forfeit their possessions, be tied to a post in the center of their home, and the house be burned.


Earliest Chinese life-saving services documented. Monies and prizes are awarded for significant rescues. First of many was the “Chinkiang Society for the Saving of Life.” Detailed rules applied for rescues, including a scale of funds vs. type of rescue performed, plus awards, and funds for burying the dead. Punishments were also set forth for poor performance and/or malfeasance.


Dutch establish Humane Society.


British Humane Society formed. Later became the British Royal Humane Society.


A group of friends meet at the “Bunch of Grapes Tavern” in Boston with a blind Englishman, Doctor Moyes. He provides background of British Humane Society. In January 1786, the Humane Society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is formed. Governor James Bowdoin is elected first president. Society offers prizes to anyone who might develop a technique for reviving persons “near death” by drowning or overcome by smoke or gases. Within a few years, the Massachusetts Humane Society constructs “Huts of Refuge” so that shipwrecked persons might find shelter along the coast of Massachusetts.


Congress assumes responsible harbors and approaches.


On August 4, President George Washington signs legislation authorizing Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, to build 10 cutters to collect duty in American ports. The date is celebrated as the birthday of the U.S. Coast Guard.


Mass Humane Society builds first surfboats and equips many “Huts of Refuge” with boats and equipment to be used by volunteer crews in rescues.


Congress passes the Newell Act, which provides construction of structures to house life-saving rescue equipment in traditional shipwreck areas, principally the New Jersey coastal approaches to New York harbor.


U.S. Lighthouse Board created by Congress to better administer lighthouse/lightship responsibilities and to correct the many deficiencies within the establishment. Many lighthouses are upgraded with Fresnel lenses.


U.S. Life-Saving Service [USLSS] is established. Approximately 280 stations are built on the East and West Coasts plus Great Lakes to aid in the rescue of shipwrecked men. Sumner I. Kimball is appointed under Secretary Boutwell in 1871 to become the head of the Revenue Marine Division.


Sumner I. Kimball becomes the first and only General Superintendent of the USLSS. The USLSS is re-organized as a stand alone organization within the Treasury Department.


On January 20, 1915 the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service and U.S. Life-Saving Service are combined and renamed U.S. Coast Guard.


In July, Congress merges U.S. Lighthouse Service with the U.S. Coast Guard.