A New Light for the Old Lighthouse

Museum seeks permission to install replica of 19th-century lens
The Montauk Lighthouse Museum is hoping to replace the current automated light with a replica of the Fresnel lens that produced the lifesaving beam for 127 years. Louis A. Sapienza

    What did it sound like waking up in a big city before the internal combustion engine was invented, when horsepower was just that? What did old Fitzgerald’s saloon, harborside in Montauk, smell like when fishermen came in out of the rain before synthetic fabrics replaced wool, and brass spitoons still served a purpose?
    And, what did you see standing beneath the Montauk Lighthouse on any clear night between 1857, the year the Light’s grand old Fresnel lens was installed, and June of 1987, when it was removed?
    Horse-drawn cities and bars smelling of wet wool and tobacco spittle are gone for good, but if the Montauk Point Lighthouse Museum can convince the United States Coast Guard there is no downside to bringing back an exact replica of the Fresnel, you will see a more powerful light sweeping its helpful beam far out to sea and across the hills of the Montauk Moorlands.
    And, as you fish, or smooch, or simply stargaze, you will do so within a magical revolving shower of smaller beams sent forth by the Fresnel’s many glass prisms. 
    The prisms of a replica 3.5-order bivalve Fresnel lens will be made of highly polished acrylic instead of glass, and  is much lighter. But, like the original, which is on permanent display in the ground-floor museum of the Lighthouse, the lens’s frame will be solid brass. While the rotation of the old Fresnel was oiled by a bath of dangerous liquid mercury, the new lens is designed to ride on state-of-the-art ball bearings.
    The replica’s manufacturer, Art Works Florida, has been contacted, and Dan Spinella, its lens designer and preservationist, has visited the Montauk Light to take measurements. The replica would cost about $75,000.
    The Coast Guard replaced the old Fresnel with a utilitarian, fully automated light that turns itself on and off using sensors. Even the Lighthouse foghorn is told to blow by a humidity-sniffing robot. Mr. Spinella said the replica, also sensor-automated, would rotate at all times — “It glistens in the sunlight” — which keeps the bearings running smoothly.
    The beam cast by the replica Fresnel, powered by a thousand-watt incandescent bulb, “is more powerful than what’s in there now,” Mr. Spinella said. If the bulb blows, it is automatically replaced by another, and there is a third, battery-powered backup if the Lighthouse loses electricity.
    Art Works Florida has outfitted a dozen lighthouses around the country with replica Fresnels. All were once maintained by the Coast Guard. Once they were no longer considered federal aids to navigation, however, because of great strides in navigation technology, they could be privatized.
    So far, the Coast Guard has resisted allowing lighthouses still considered part of the federal government’s system of aids to navigation to go private. Dick White, the Lighthouse committee’s chairman, hopes to convince the agency to relax this policy.
    “We have redundancy. We will duplicate all the safeguards that the Coast Guard has so that nothing can go through the cracks,” Mr. White said.
    The Montauk Historical Society owns the land on which sits the tower that George Washington authorized, and it owns the Lighthouse itself. The Coast Guard maintains the Light, an arrangement Mr. White said could continue if the agency wanted.
    The committee has filed a formal request to make the Lighthouse a private aid to navigation. A three-month required survey of mariners, in order to discover any objections to the Light’s change of status, was completed in June.
    Henry Osmers, the Montauk Lighthouse’s historian, whose latest book, “American Gibraltar — Montauk and the Wars of America,” was just published, talked about the Light’s connection with the Fresnel, a history that includes an intriguing mystery.
    A lens comprised of an array of prisms that focused light from a single source was developed by Augustin-Jean Fresnel in the early-19th century. It became a standard in lighthouses.
    The Montauk Lighthouse has had two Fresnels, Mr. Osmers said. The original, installed in 1857, might well have been fueled by whale oil. “When it was installed, the lantern in which the lens sat was not the right size. The dome on the top of the Lighthouse blocked a third of the light. In 1860 they reconstructed the top of tower to where it is today.”
    The original Fresnel, 12 feet tall and weighing 10,000 pounds, was called a first-order lens. Mr. Osmers said Fresnel made six sizes (orders) of lenses. “The first order was in the tower from 1860 to 1903. It was removed when a clockwork mechanism, which controlled a flash panel that revolved around the lens, broke. The flash was the Montauk Light’s signature.”
    The first lens was swapped out for a 3.5-order Fresnel, half the weight and half the size. But what happened to the original?
    Mr. Osmers said records indicate it was taken apart and put in wooden crates. The crates were put on a boat bound for New York City and eventually for a repair depot on Staten Island. The lens “sailed off into the mist,” Mr. Osmers said. It never arrived at its destination, and was never seen again. 
    The 3.5-order Fresnel served for 83 years until the light was replaced by a fully-automated Vega VRB-25 with a range of 18 nautical miles. Soon after it was installed, local fishermen complained that its beam was weak. The replica Fresnel would cast a brighter beam, at least two nautical miles farther out to sea. The Vega is rated at 293,700 candlepower. The replica is rated at 2.5 million.
    The Coast Guard is considering the Lighthouse committee’s request.