History of the 1858 Fire Island Lighthouse 1st Order Fresnel Lens

Engraving of Cross Section through First Order Fresnel Lens

When the present Fire Island Light began operation on November 1, 1858, it was illuminated by a state-of-the-art first order Fresnel lens, an intricate beehive-shaped mass of brass and glass prisms, rotating on a clockwork assembly.

This lighting apparatus served as a beacon to mariners from the top of the Fire Island Lighthouse from 1858 to 1933. After an absence of 78 years, this Fresnel lens returned to Fire Island on March 8, 2011. It was unveiled in its new home on July 22, 2011.


A New Lens for the New Lighthouse

The current Fire Island Lighthouse, completed in 1858 with a state-of-the-art revolving first order Fresnel lens and Funck hydraulic lamp using whale oil, had a focal plane of 166 feet above sea level, so that this light could be seen from ships at least 21 nautical miles at sea.

This was a part of a national initiative to improve maritime safety. It is significant today as a symbol of the commercial and maritime heritage of the United States, and the evolution of communication and navigational technologies. The Fresnel lens helps tell that story.

This original first order Fresnel lens, an intricate beehive-shaped mass of brass and glass prisms, served as a beacon to mariners from the top of the Fire Island Lighthouse from 1858 to 1933. After being taken out of service, it was displayed at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia from 1939 to 2000.

Bringing the Original Fresnel Lens Home

A "Return of the Lens" has long been envisioned. In 1986, Fire Island National Seashore (FINS) identified the lens as an important artifact that was envisioned for inclusion in the park's cultural history collection. When the lens was slated for removal from the Franklin Institute in 2000, FINS and FILPS began formal discussions with USCG for the transfer of the object to the National Park Service (NPS) on a long-term, renewable loan. By 2001, more than 30 crates of the disassembled lens were being stored by the NPS, awaiting construction of a suitable display facility.

On March 8, 2011, the Fire Island Light Station's first lighting apparatus - now more than 150 years old - made its way back to Fire Island...still in crates. Its future home, an intriguing new building designed specifically to display the impressive 16-foot-tall artifact, was completed and opened to the public in 2011.

The Fresnels Lens Building is open during regular hours for the Fire Island Lighthouse, which is operated by the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society. There is no charge to enter the Fresnel Lens Building, but an interpretive fee is collected for lighthouse tower tours. Plan your Fire Island Lighthouse visit.


The Fire Island Light Station was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on September 11, 1981. Learn more about the history of Fire Island.


The Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society

The Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society (FILPS), a nonprofit organization which was instrumental in the preservation of the deteriorating Fire Island Lighthouse in the late 1970s, now operates visitor services at the site under a cooperating agreement with the National Park Service at Fire Island National Seashore.

Since 2006, FILPS has also maintained the Fire Island Light as a private aid to navigation under an agreement with the United States Coast Guard.

FILPS is authorized as a fundraising partner to support maintenance and improvements at the Fire Island Lighthouse, and has helped raise funds to keep the Fire Island Light shining.

Last updated: June 20, 2018

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