Though Cape Byron was explored in the early 19th century, and construction of lighthouses on the New South Wales shore quickened in the mid 19th century, and especially in the 1870s under Colonial Architect James Barnet, a lighthouse was not constructed on the cape since it was considered clearly visible anyway. The decision to proceed with building the light was made at the end of the 1890s, and the site was levelled in October 1899.
The tower was built by James Barnet's successor, Charles Assinder Harding, who also designed Norah Head Light and Point Perpendicular Light, in a style similar to Barnet's.
Construction of the site began in July 1900 by contractors Mitchell and King. The total cost was £10,042 pounds to the contractors, £8,000 for the apparatus and lantern house, and £2,600 for the road from Byron Bay township. Adjusting for inflation, this equates to roughly $2.8M Australian dollars today.
Construction ended in 1901 and was to be celebrated on 30 November 1901 in a great banquet, with special trains carrying visitors from Lismore and Murwillumbah, at the presence of the Premier of the day, the Hon. John See, who was to arrive from Sydney in the government steamer 'Victoria'. However, bad weather delayed the ship till the following day and the banquet was held without him. The opening by the Premier took place a day later.
The lens now in use is the original 1st-order bivalve Henry-LePaute Fresnel lens. The 2 metres (6 ft 7 in) diameter lens, weighing 8 tonnes (7.9 long tons; 8.8 short tons), contains 760 pieces of highly polished prismatic glass, floating in a 7 long hundredweight (780 lb; 360 kg) float bath of mercury. It was the first lighthouse in Australia with a mercury float mechanism. The mechanism is rotating also during the day to reduce the risk of fire from the sun's rays. It is the only Henry-LePaute apparatus in Australis.
The original light source was a concentric six wick kerosene burner with an intensity of 145,000 cd. This was replaced in 1922 by a vapourised kerosene mantle burner with an intensity of 500,000 cd.
In 1922 an improved apparatus was installed, doubling the power to 1,000,000 cd. In 1956 the light was electrified, the clock mechanism was replaced by an electric motor, and the light source was replaced with a 1000 Watt 120 Volt tungsten-halogen lamp with an intensity of 2,200,000 cd, fed from the Mains electricity, with a 2.5 KVA backup diesel alternator. At that time, the keeper staff was reduced from three to two.
The station was fully automated in 1989, and the last lighthouse keeper departed.
The light characteristic shown is a white flash every 15 seconds (Fl.W. 15s). The tower also displays a red, short ranged, continuous light (F.R.) to the northeast, covering Julian Rocks and the nearby reefs. The red light is emitted at a lower focal plain.
The lighthouse is built out of precast concrete blocks and painted white. The concrete blocks were made on the ground, lifted and cemented into position and finally cement rendered inside and out. This technique saved the need for on site quarrying. It was only the second lighthouse to be constructed in this method, the first being Point Perpendicular Light.
The tower is tapered, standing 74 feet (23 m) high, including the lantern. Ascending is done via an internal spiral concrete staircase with slate treads. It is topped by the iron floored lantern room. The lantern room has iron dado walls and the roof is domed, covered in sheet metal, and surmounted by a wind vane and a ventilator.
At the base of the tower there is an entrance porch, lobby and two service rooms, all having crenellated parapet walls, painted white with a blue trim on the bottom from the outside. The porch has a trachyte floor and steps, a cedar entrance door and etched glass panels and sidelights. The lobby has a tiled floor and trachyte steps, and the other rooms have asphalted floors and cedar windows.
Housing at the site includes the head lighthouse keeper's residence, and two assistant keeper's cottages (a duplex), which are available for overnight rental. Both structures were erected from precast concrete blocks in 1901.
Another distinctive structure is a small Flag Room, also constructed of precast concrete blocks. Also present are two garages, a workshop and public toilets. Some of the original fending is also extant.
The light is operated by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, while the site is managed by Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water as part of the Cape Byron State Conservation Area, and by the Byron Bay Headland Reserve Trust.
The lighthouse is very well known, attracting more than 500,000 visitors per year. It is also a popular site for whale watching, with Southern Cross University's Whale Research Centre is located at the lighthouse.
The lighthouse is located at the end of Lighthouse Road, east of Byron Bay. The site is open from sunrise to sunset, and paid parking is available at the site, and the tower is open to guided tours every day except Christmas Day, reservations are not required.
The lighthouse can also be visited on foot from Byron Bay township via the Cape Byron Walking Track.