History – Fresnel Lenses

This month’s history post comes from the Coast Guard Curatorial Services Program. The program’s curator ensures the proper collection, preservation, security, accountability and use of the Coast Guard’s historically significant artifacts and art.

The Coast Guard Museum on the Coast Guard Academy grounds in New London, Connecticut, as well as other museums and exhibit centers across the nation, have on display historical artifacts and memorials representing the U.S. Coast Guard and its predecessor agencies – U.S. Lighthouse Service, U.S. Life-Saving Service, U.S. Revenue Marine & Revenue Cutter Service, Bureau of Navigation and the Steamboat Inspection Service.

Post Written By Arlyn Danielson

My name is Arlyn Danielson and I am the Coast Guard Curator. I work with the Coast Guard Historian’s office and am responsible for all artifacts in the Coast Guard’s historic asset collection. The collection encompasses many types of artifacts such as uniforms, documents, combat art, models, medals (including Doug Munro’s Medal of Honor awarded during WWII), lighthouse items, boats (including two examples used in Hurricane Katrina), helicopters, ships clocks, bells, sextants, and many other items and equipment used by the Coast Guard both past and present.

Despite this wide array of historic material, the most iconic and enduringly popular fixtures in Coast Guard history are the old lighthouses and their associated Fresnel lenses. In the United States, the first Fresnel lens went into operation at the Navesink Lighthouse in 1841. The past 100 years have seen new developments in coastal navigational technology which has pushed lighthouses and Fresnel lenses into general obsolescence. Lighthouses and lenses, nevertheless, have inspired an endless amount of public fascination, debate, historical research, restoration projects, and unique updating of historic lighthouse properties into tourist attractions, bed and breakfasts, and event venues.

The lighthouse lens of yesteryear has today been superseded by handheld GPS devices, although some locations around the country still use Fresnel lenses as working aids to navigation of which Boston Light and Makapu’u in Hawaii are just two examples.

The Coast Guard’s historic artifact collection has over 150 lenses, most of which are loaned out to maritime museums and lighthouse organizations for exhibit and educational purposes. How does a lens become part of the historic collection? Once a lighthouse or lens is no longer needed as a Federal aid to navigation it is decommissioned. Lighthouse preservation groups oftentimes assume ownership and operation of the lighthouses, but due to their historic significance and value, the Coast Guard retains ownership of all lenses. In the past, many decommissioned lenses have been put on display at Coast Guard unit offices and properties around the United States.

A significant amount of my time at work is dedicated to the lenses in our collection. I am responsible for their care, preservation, tracking, monitoring and research. In addition to these tasks, I work closely with specially trained “lampists” who restore and conserve lenses. All proposed restoration work must be approved by my office. My goal as the Curator, is to preserve these icons of Coast Guard and American history so they can be enjoyed by people for years to come.

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