Exhibits · Fresnel lens · Keepers · News

Restoration of Point Reyes Lighthouse Lens

Bill Anderson and Mike Warren, along with Peter Crook (not pictured), have been trained in maintaining the lens at Point Reyes. They are part of a team that the park calls the Lighthouse Corps. All photos by Candace Clifford

On April 18th I had the pleasure of visiting the Point Reyes Light Station in Point Reyes National Seashore located on the Pacific Coast 35 miles north of San Francisco. This special tour was part of the annual Council of American Maritime Museums conference hosted by the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. One of the highlights of the tour was seeing the first-order lens in situ. Volunteer Keepers Mike Warren and Bill Anderson were on hand to welcome us to the site, and we had the unusual priviledge of watching the lens rotate on its chariot wheels for several minutes.

Although funds were appropriated for a lighthouse at Point Reyes in 1854, disputes over title of the land dragged on for 15 years. In that period over three-quarters of a million dollars worth  of ships and cargo was lost from shipwrecks on that point.

The Barbier & Fenestre apparatus was manufactured in Paris in 1867. It has been in the tower since the light was established in 1870. The lens was transferred from the U.S. Coast Guard to the National Park Service when the light was automated in the 1970s.

Point Reyes CA 2017 Bill Anderson winds clockwork JCC
Bill Anderson winds clockwork
Weights that drive the clockwork mechanism. Keepers had to wind these weights every two hours and twenty minutes when the light was active.

According to Carola DeRooy, Museum Program Manager for the Seashore, “The National Park Service has funded a multi-million dollar restoration project for the lighthouse, lens and clockworks, and fog signal building, as well as accessibility improvements and new exhibits at the entire site. We have been in the planning stages for 2 years and the work will be starting in the fall. The tower’s roof is being replaced, so the lens and clockworks have to be removed at the beginning of the project and conservation work done while it’s out.”

A bullseye, broken in a recent earthquake, will be repaired during the restoration.

A complete condition assessment will be undertaken to see what additional repairs are necessary to the lens, chariot wheels, and clockwork. After the conservation is completed, the lens will be re-assembled as an interpretive display in the tower. It is hoped that the lens will be operated for paid “behind the scenes” tours that would help fund its maintenance.

The restoration is expected to take a year, and the park will try, with safety considerations in mind, to keep the site accessible as much as possible. The lighthouse itself will have scaffolding all around it and will likely be closed until building repairs are completed.

Currently, the lighthouse stairs are open to the public Fridays through Mondays. See the park’s visitor information for details on times the lens room is open and links to more information.

The building just below the lighthouse still belongs to the Coast Guard and the current aids to navigation (light and fog horn) are on the roof of that building.

Submitted by U.S. Lighthouse Historian Candace Clifford, May 5, 2017.

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U.S. Lighthouse Society News is produced by the U.S. Lighthouse Society to support lighthouse preservation, history, education and research. Please consider joining the U.S. Lighthouse Society if you are not already a member. If you have items of interest to the lighthouse community and its supporters, please email them to candace@uslhs.org.

Event · Exhibits · Fresnel lens · News

Destruction Island Lighthouse

Approaching Destruction Island Light Station off the Washington coast by helicopter in 2004. Photo courtesy Carl Gowler
Destruction Island lighthouse tower, 2004. Photo courtesy Carl Gowler

Carl Gowler was stationed on Destruction Island Light Station in 1967-1968 and visited the island as a guest as part of the crew securing the station in 2004. He shared these photos taken during that visit stating, “What I find interesting is a majority of lighthouse photos are of pristine lighthouses freshly painted and spruced up by hard working volunteers. I haven’t seen  any with moss on the sides.”


Destruction Island WA lens at Westport Maritime Museum courtesy John Shaw lores.jpeg
Destruction Island Lighthouse’s lens on display at the Westport Maritime Museum. Photo courtesy of John Shaw, the museum’s director

Although Destruction Island Light Station is inaccessible to the public, its beautiful first-order lens has been restored and placed on exhibit at the Westport Maritime Museum in Grays Harbor, Washington. The magnificent lens was manufactured in France in 1888 by Henry Le Paute. The lens was installed in the lighthouse in 1891 and operated until 1995 when it was removed by the Coast Guard. In 1998 the historic optic was reassembled as the centerpiece of a specially designed lens building.

On the first Saturday in December, Santa visits Westport Maritime Museum in the annual SANTA BY THE SEA Program. 2016 photo courtesy of John Shaw, Director, Westport Maritime Museum
Santa and Mrs. Claus greet children beneath the Destruction Island lens. 2016 photo courtesy of John Shaw, Director, Westport Maritime Museum

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U.S. Lighthouse Society News is produced by the U.S. Lighthouse Society to support lighthouse preservation, history, education and research. Please consider joining the U.S. Lighthouse Society if you are not already a member. If you have items of interest to the lighthouse community and its supporters, please email them to candace@uslhs.org.

Fresnel lens · News

The Remarkable Lens in America’s Oldest Lighthouse Station

160808-g-si450-022The 2-ton, 11-foot high tower of glass was first installed in 1859 and still guides ships today. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew Barresi

Friday, November 18, 2016 – 12:45

by Catherine Meyers, Staff Writer,  Inside Science

(Inside Science) — Boston Light, America’s oldest lighthouse station, turned 300 this year. Built on a small, rocky island near the entrance to Boston Harbor, it draws visitors not only for its age, but for the chance it offers to view a piece of technology that some argue changed the course of the 19th century: a massive lens made from hundreds of sparkling glass prisms.

Sally Snowman, keeper of Boston Light, with the lighthouse’s 1859 Fresnel lens. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew Barresi 

“It’s 4,000 pounds of glass and brass,” said Sally Snowman, the keeper at Boston Light, describing the apparatus that greets visitors at the top of 76 spiraling stairs and two ladders. “I call it the crystal Christmas tree. People are in awe when they see it.”

When the lens was installed in 1859, it replaced a chandelier with multiple oil lamps and reflectors. The new lens dramatically increased the range of the light signal, meaning ships far offshore could be warned of danger in plenty of time.

Government documents from around the time of the installation report the improved visibility from similar lenses in other U.S. lighthouses “was indispensable for the safety of navigation.”

The 336 individual glass prisms in Boston Light’s lens all serve one purpose: to concentrate the light that radiates in all directions from a central lamp into narrow beams. The lens’ 12 panels, arranged in a rounded shape about the lamp, shoot out shafts of light like the spokes in a wheel. The whole assembly turns slowly on metal wheels so that the light appears to flash to ships at sea. With the current 1,000-watt lamp, the signal can be seen by ships 27 nautical miles away.

The lens was the brainchild of French physicist and engineer Augustin-Jean Fresnel, who was fascinated by the behavior of light.

In the early 19th century — when Fresnel was a child and young adult — lighthouses were feeble beacons, visible generally for under 10 miles in good weather and even less on stormy nights. Many times, the range was not good enough. Coastal shipwrecks drowned sailors and destroyed cargo with disturbing regularity.

At the time, the state-of-the-art in lighthouse technology was shiny metal reflectors specially shaped to concentrate the light from multiple oil lamps into a beam. The problem was that they were inefficient — reflecting only about 50 percent of the light that hit them.

Fresnel found a better way to redirect light, using glass instead of metal.

A 2011 picture shows the inside of the Boston Light Fresnel lens. The unlit lamp serves as backup in case the first one burns out. Courtesy of Sally Snowman

The heart of a Fresnel lighthouse lens looks like a transparent bull’s eye. You might not guess it from the immense weight, but one of the tricks of Fresnel’s design was a clever way to slim down his lens. Scientists already knew that curved lenses, like the ones you find in a magnifying glass, concentrate light. Fresnel realized that only the outside edge played the important role of bending light in the desired direction. His design collapsed the curved lens into rings of concentric circles. Removing the unnecessary interior of the lens not only cut down on the weight, but also cut the amount of light absorbed by the glass. The strategic trimming meant the lenses could be many feet tall.

Other parts of the lens catch the light escaping above and below the main “bull’s eye” panels and redirect it out to sea.

Fresnel’s design met with initial skepticism from the French Lighthouse Commission, but when he came back with a lens to test, the results spoke for themselves. The first lens was installed in 1822 at a lighthouse near the mouth of the Gironde River in France and was visible for more than 20 miles. Within a few years all French lighthouses were equipped with Fresnel lenses.

The technology was slower to catch on in the United States. A penny-pinching federal official who oversaw the Treasury Department’s Lighthouse Establishment denied funds for the new lenses until Congress ordered an investigation into the quality of U.S. lighthouses. The first Fresnel lenses in America were installed in 1841 in New York.

By making shipping safer, Fresnel lenses played an important part in the explosion in global trade during the 19th century, said Theresa Levitt, a science historian at the University of Mississippi in Oxford who wrote a book about the life of Fresnel and his role in the birth of the modern lighthouse. As she researched for her book, Levitt changed her mindset about Fresnel’s work. “I went from thinking that he was a physicist, somewhat distracted by this work on applied technology, to really seeing that he himself saw this as his major contribution to humanity.”

Although many lighthouses have now been outfitted with more modern optics, 81 classical Fresnel lenses still operate throughout the U.S.

“I find the beauty and durability of the Fresnel lens to be its most amazing qualities,” said Jim Dunlap, one of six “lampists” in the U.S. who are qualified to clean, repair, move and otherwise work on Fresnel lighthouse lenses. “They were made in an age when the appearance of a product — even industrial machinery such as a lighthouse optic — was an important factor in its design.”

As for the lens in Boston Light, it still guides modern-day mariners, with a characteristic wink of light every 10 seconds. After 157 years, “it’s amazing it’s still doing its shtick,” said Snowman. “Visitors can get nose-to-nose with it. It’s just such a unique place.”

Reprinted with permission from Inside Science, an editorially independent news product of the American Institute of Physics, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing, promoting and serving the physical sciences. (Note the article links to our inventory of Fresnel Lens at https://uslhs.org/history/fresnel-lenses/classical-fresnel-lenses/fresnel-lenses-operational-list)

Exhibits · Fresnel lens

Maine Maritime Museum to Open Immersive Lighthouse Exhibit Summer 2017

Poster for INTO THE LANTERN exhibit courtesy of Maine Maritime Museum
Poster for INTO THE LANTERN exhibit courtesy of Maine Maritime Museum

Bath, Maine – This November, Maine Maritime Museum will break ground on construction of a new gallery space that will house an immersive lighthouse exhibit, Into the Lantern: A Lighthouse Experience. Opening in summer 2017, the exhibit will house the second-order Fresnel lens that that once guided ships into Portland, Maine, from the east Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse tower (formerly known as Two Lights). The lens in the exhibit is the original ca. 1874 Fresnel lens that was in the east lantern until 1991.

Into the Lantern: A Lighthouse Experience will be the first exhibit of its kind to include a 180-degree media projection system with time-lapse videography of the active panorama of the Gulf of Maine, simulating the experience of standing in the lantern (the room at the top of a lighthouse tower where the lens is located) by showcasing changing views of Casco Bay as seen from the tower. The videography is currently being shot from the actual east lantern at Two Lights. The exhibit will be on one level, making it possible for people who are physically unable to negotiate the steps of a real tower to have the visceral experience of going “up into” a lighthouse – with the views from the top, the sounds, and the breezes.

“Imagine standing at the top of the Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse and watching the view changing over 24 hours – from sunrise to sunset with boat traffic going by, the wind blowing, and the seagulls calling. We want to replicate that experience for all the people who know and love this famous lighthouse, but will never otherwise be able to appreciate it in that way,” said Executive Director Amy Lent. “We’ve been offering boat tours of area lighthouses for years and we know how much people love learning about them, so we are excited to create this new experience that will teach the history and science behind these important navigational aids in an entirely new way.”

The lens has been kept in climate-controlled storage at the museum since 2013. It was formerly housed in the lobby at Cape Elizabeth Town Hall.

A capital campaign is underway to raise the $980,000 needed for design, construction, and installation of the permanent exhibit with nearly 80 percent of the goal raised so far.

Submitted by Katie Meyers, Maine Maritime Museum, November 16, 2016

U.S. Lighthouse Society News is produced by the U.S. Lighthouse Society to support lighthouse preservation, history, education and research. Please consider joining the U.S. Lighthouse Society if you are not already a member. If you have items of interest to the lighthouse community and its supporters, please email them to candace@uslhs.org.