West Quoddy Head Light’s Crystalline Treasure
The stately appearance of a lighthouse is something to behold. Such majesty is magnified even further when a sentinel is still wearing its “crown” of crystalline in the form of a Fresnel lens. The late Ken Black, founder of the Maine Lighthouse Museum in Rockland, was fond of saying when referring to Fresnel lenses, “We call the lenses the jewels, the gems.” Indeed!
In his article entitled, “The Jewel in the Sand – Manufacturing Lighthouse Lenses,” which appeared in the spring 2000 issue of the United States Lighthouse Society’s Keeper’s Log, author Thomas A. Tag stated, “There are few things made by man that are more impressive or beautiful than a Fresnel lens. This crystal cage of glass sparkles in the sun splitting the light into tiny rainbows of glorious iridescent color like a precious diamond, and at night it sends forth its magnificent spokes of light to warn the mariner.”
Tag went on to note, “Yet, all of this beauty comes from a mundane source, ordinary beach sand, with a few other ingredients, a process that was itself a bit of magic wrought by the hand of ancient craftsmen.”
The Fresnel lens was invented by Augustin-Jean Fresnel, a French engineer and physicist, in 1822. The enduring legacy of Fresnel’s revolutionary achievement in the science of light cannot be adequately measured. The untold numbers of lives saved and ships/cargo protected worldwide due to the lifesaving beams shining forth from his lens is incalculable. Augustin Fresnel’s design captured more useful light and sent it further out to sea than anything contrived prior – and frankly, the scientific principals upon which he developed the lens nearly two centuries ago still have not been supplanted today.
The United States was slow to utilize this unmatched advancement in illumination at the outset, but that all changed when Congress placed responsibility for our nation’s aids to navigation system under the control of the newly created U.S. Light-House Board in 1852.
Beginning in 1852, the Board made a concerted effort to outfit every lighthouse in the United States with a Fresnel lens. The process took some years to realize due to factors such as supply and demand as well as the expensive cost of the lenses and their associated apparatus, but by 1859, the goal was largely achieved. In the process, our nation’s network of lighthouses and other aids to navigation was well on its way to becoming the finest in the world.
George Weiss explained what made a Fresnel lens so unique and effective in his 1926 book, The Lighthouse Service: Its History, Activities and Organization. According to Weiss, “The Fresnel apparatus consists of a polyzonal lens enclosing the lamp, which is placed at the central focus. The lens is built up of glass prisms in panels, the central portions of which are dioptric, or refracting only, and the upper and lower portions both reflecting and refracting, or catadioptric.”
Weiss concluded, stating, “The advantages of this system lie in the greater brilliancy, owing to the fact that a large proportion of the light given out by the source is concentrated by the prisms into beams useful to the mariner, and the consequent economy in the consumption of oil or other illuminant used.”
However, as time marched on and electric was introduced at lighthouses, many of the Fresnel lenses were eventually removed in favor of rotating aero beacons with durable motors such as the DCB-36 and DCB-24. This transition gained momentum in the years following World War II. Today, only eight Fresnel lenses grace the lanterns of Maine’s lighthouses.
One of these eight lenses can be found at West Quoddy Head Lighthouse in Lubec. The splendid red and white striped lighthouse, which stands sentinel at the easternmost spot on United States mainland, is outfitted with a third order Fresnel lens.
The lens stands over five feet tall and is truly breathtaking in its beauty. Not a person sees it that isn’t awed at its sparkling presence. West Quoddy Head’s lens was installed in 1858 and has remained in service ever since.
This third order lens has embraced light sources of sperm whale oil, lard oil, kerosene and electricity – and has transitioned from onsite keepers caring for the light to automated operation in 1988. Through it all, the one constant has been the uninterrupted service of this priceless work of art which harkens back to another time, all the while still pointing the way to our 21st century tomorrows yet to come.
The modern day keepers of the lights – lighthouse technicians from the United States Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team Southwest Harbor, consider it an honor to be able to maintain a bright optic inside this prismatic treasure. Technicians make regular visits to West Quoddy Head Lighthouse, ensuring the lamps and all their associated equipment are maintained in tip-top shape and operating correctly.
And in keeping with the tradition of bygone lighthouse keepers, Coast Guard technicians will also periodically take the time to wipe clean the Fresnel lens from top to bottom, inside and out – removing dust and fingerprints from the prisms to achieve the best “shine” possible.
Ken Black once said, “When you see these things all brightly polished – bearing in mind that years ago, that was one of the lighthouse keeper’s principal jobs, to keep it looking like a gem – they’re absolutely gorgeous.”
Today, volunteers from the West Quoddy Head Light Keepers Association and State of Maine park rangers team-up on the care of the historic site, while cherishing the opportunity to help protect the lens and show it off with great pride during public tours of the tower.
The Fresnel lens itself is priceless – but so too is the experience of seeing in-person the lens concentrate and magnify light as it sends a guiding beam seaward both day and night. The utility of the lens remains paramount in helping to safely guide mariners to and fro on the water, but the allure of the crystalline beehive beckoning visitors to come nearer and admire its boundless beauty, is just as important.
May this unique experience continue to illuminate the hearts and minds of those near and far on the horizons of tomorrow! As Bruce Watson noted in the August 1999 Smithsonian Magazine, “The lens is visible proof that unlike the sea, light can be mastered by human ingenuity.”
QUICK FACTS – West Quoddy Head Light Fresnel Lens
- Lens height: 62.05 inches
- Height of lower reflector: 10.94 inches
- Height of central refractor: 25.98 inches
- Height of upper reflector: 23.35 inches
- Inside Diameter: 39.6 inches
- Weight of assembly: 1,986 lbs.
- Focal length: 19.69”
- Useful range: Up to 18 nautical miles
- Light characteristic today: Two white flashes every 15 seconds
- Light source today: Sealite light emitting diode beacon SL-LED-216
- Coast Guard unit responsible for maintaining light: USCG Aids to Team Southwest Harbor
- Number of third order Fresnel lenses in U.S. lighthouses in 1884: 49
- Number of third order Fresnel lenses in U.S. lighthouses in 1926: 64
- Number of third order Fresnel lenses in U.S. lighthouses in 1945: 68
- Original cost of a third order Fresnel lens: Between $1,475 to $3,650 (per Arnold Burges Johnson, Chief Clerk, U.S. Light-House Board, 1890)