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Jacob’s Ladder

Stairway to heaven?

Skip to:  What is ‘Jacob's Ladder’?  Why ‘Jacob's Ladder’?  Other places called Jacob's Ladder  Other uses of the term

What is ‘Jacob's Ladder’?

Jacob's Ladder, from the top looking down upon Jamestown

Jacob's Ladder is a run of 699 (some say 700) steps, up from Jamestown in the floor of the valley to the fort at Ladder Hill on the western valley slope.

It was originally an ‘inclined plane’ - a horse-powered machine for hauling goods to the top of the hill on rails using pulleys (if you can't envisage that, there's a working model in the St. Helena Museum).  When the inclined plane was broken up the steps remained and today it is either a short way up or down the valley, an exhilarating climb, or 699 steps of torment, depending on your point of view and level of fitness.  Some people race up it.  Some people skim down it, by putting their feet on one handrail, their upper back on the other and just sliding down - easy to get started, somewhat harder to stop.  The view from the top (above) shows how steep it is.

But why is it called ‘Jacob's Ladder’?  And is it the only Jacob's Ladder in existence?  For answers to these questions, read on . . .

Why ‘Jacob's Ladder’?

It certainly isn't because it was built by or owned by a chap called Jacob.  The answer comes from The Bible, in the Book of Genesis chapter 28 verses 11-19:

"Jacob left Beersheba, and went toward Haran. He came to the place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!"

Since then, in the parts of the world where The Bible is a sacred book, any impossibly steep climb tends to acquire the name Jacob's Ladder.  And 699 almost-vertical steps probably qualify as well as any, though at the top of ours lies Ladder Hill Fort and if that's Heaven . . .

Other places called Jacob's Ladder

The Wikipedia lists several other places that carry the name Jacob's Ladder, including

Other uses of the term

High Voltage Traveling Arc

Interestingly, the term Jacob's Ladder also has a variety of other uses.

If you watch sci-fi movies you may see sparks travelling up a pair of wires.  Every mad scientist's laboratory has one!  More correctly called a High Voltage Traveling Arc, it looks like the picture on the left.  Attractive but dangerous - the voltage needed to make it work is enough to do you some serious damage.
(Go here for a larger image and an explanation of how it works - a basic knowledge of physics is required to understand the explanation.)

To the nautically inclined a Jacob's Ladder is either a flexible hanging ladder which can be lowered down the side of a large ship, consisting of vertical ropes or chains supporting horizontal wooden or metal rungs and used to allow people to board the ship from small boats. Or it is the part of the rigging on a square-rigged sailing ship that sailors use to climb above the lower mast to the topmast and above.  This provides an alternative explanation as to why our Jacob's Ladder is so named.

Crepuscular rays over Blue Hill  (Click to see the full-sized image, opens in a new window or tab)

The term is also used to describe this light effect, formally known as ‘crepuscular rays’, when the sun's rays shine through a gap in the cloud (seen here over St. Helena but at Blue Hill, nowhere near the physical Jacob's Ladder).  Very pretty but not a feasible means of transport; for humans at least.

For children it's a toy, consisting of a block of wood connected with strings.  When the ‘ladder’ is held at one end, the blocks appear to cascade down the strings.  The Wikipedia provides a more detailed explanation and even a video, in case you've never seen one in action.

The Wiki also lists several other uses of the term, including one related to a body piercing, and nine pieces of music entitled "Jacob's Ladder" or containing the term, ranging from rock to gospel/folk to opera.  And finally the name was also given to a 1990 film, in which an American soldier in the Vietnam War has hallucinations prior to his death from a bayonet wound.  Probably very profound.  More detail on the Internet Movie Database.

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This is an old version of from June 2010, which is for curiosity purposes only.
To see the up-to-date version of this page go to