AskDefine | Define watchtower

Dictionary Definition

watchtower n : an observation tower for a lookout to watch over prisoners or watch for fires or enemies

User Contributed Dictionary

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From watch + tower


  1. an observation tower, in which a lookout keeps watch over prisoners, or looks out for fires etc

Extensive Definition

A watchtower is a type of fortification used in many parts of the world. It differs from a regular tower in that its primary use is military, and from a turret in that it is usually a freestanding structure. Its main purpose is to provide a high, safe place from which a sentinel or guard may observe the surrounding area. In some cases, non-military towers, such as religious pagodas, may also be used as watchtowers. An example of nonmiltary watchtower in history is the one of Jerusalem. Though the Hebrews used it to keep a watch for approaching armies, the religious authorities forbade the taking of weapons up into the tower as this would require bringing weapons through the temple. Rebuilt by King Herod, that watchtower was renamed after Mark Antony, his friend who battled against Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (later Augustus) and lost.

Early history of the watchtower

The Romans built numerous towers as part of a system of communications, one example being the towers along Hadrian's Wall in Britain. Each tower was in sight of the next in the line, and a simple system of semaphore signalling was used between them. They also built many lighthouses, such as the Tower of Hercules in northern Spain, which survives to this day as a working building, and the equally famous lighthouse at Dover Castle, which survives to about half its original height as a ruin. In medieval Europe, many castles and manor houses, or similar fortified buildings, were equipped with watchtowers. In some of the manor houses of western France, the watchtower equipped with arrow or gun loopholes was one of the principal means of defense. A feudal lord could keep watch over his domain from the top of his tower.
Some notable examples of military watchtowers include the towers that Martin de Redin, Grand Master of the Knights of Malta had constructed on the coasts of Malta, and the Martello Towers that the British built in the UK and elsewhere in the British Empire. All of these types of towers were armed with cannon. One of the last Martello Towers to be built was Fort Denison in Sydney harbour. The most recent descendants of the Martello Towers are the flak towers that the various combattants erected in World War II as mounts for anti-aircraft artillery.
In modern warfare the relevance of watchtowers has decreased due to the availability of alternative forms of military intelligence, such as reconnaissance by spy satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles.

Modern day uses of the watchtower

An example of a modern, non-military use of watchtowers is the United States Forest Service fire towers in national forests. During the fire season, the USFS staffs the towers with observers who keep a lookout for wildfires.
Prison complexes in many countries also feature watchtowers to keep an eye on the prison population, particularly when they are outside in the prison yard.

See also

  • Observation towers are similar constructions being usually outside of fortifications. A similar use have also Control towers on airports or harbours.
watchtower in Catalan: Mirador
watchtower in German: Wachturm
watchtower in Spanish: Atalaya (construcción)
watchtower in French: Mirador
watchtower in Hungarian: Őrtorony (erőd)
watchtower in Dutch: Uitkijktoren
watchtower in Polish: Strażnica (budynek)
watchtower in Finnish: Vartiotorni
watchtower in Russian: Сторожевая башня (построение)
watchtower in Swedish: Vakttorn

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Texas tower, beacon, belvedere, bench mark, bleachers, bookmark, bridge, cairn, catstone, conning tower, gallery, gazebo, grandstand, landmark, lighthouse, lightship, lookout, loophole, mark, marker, menhir, milepost, milestone, monument, observation post, observatory, outlook, overlook, peanut gallery, peephole, pharos, platform, ringside, ringside seat, seamark, sighthole, top gallery, tower
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