The Remarkable Fresnel Lens

Fresnel Lens, Vashon Island, WA, 5th Order

A modern invention of the 1820s that revolutionized the science of light and shipping was the Fresnel lens. This invention, created by Augustin-Jean Fresnel (1788-1827), is a lens with an array of prisms capturing light and extending its reach. Today we are still influenced by these lenses around the world.


Fresnel (pronounced fray-NEL) lenses were originally created as a solution for the tragic ship wrecks that were prevalent in the 1800s. Ship captains, sometimes unable to see coastal waters due to low light, crashed their vessels into the reef with disastrous results.


Light naturally diffuses in all directions. Finding a way to cut down on this diffusion was the challenge for many years. At the time, shiny metal reflectors around the light source (oil lamps) were used to enhance the light, but this only gave about 50% reflection.


French physicist Augustin Fresnel’s skill and brilliance in interpreting the mechanics of light led to innovative lens inventions. Lighthouse visibility improved tremendously, and consequently made shipping safer.


Although I have been to many lighthouses, I never regarded the light as anything special. Then last year I was in the Visitor Center at a California State Park, Angel Island, and became instantly dazzled by a waist-high glass piece mounted on the floor. It had once been used in the lighthouse on Angel Island, and was on display.


It captured the light of the room in the most extraordinary, and beautiful, way. I’ve been a fan ever since.


Vashon Island, WA Lighthouse. You can see the Fresnel lens in the tower through the windows.

There are numerous aspects that make the Fresnel lens unique and effective:

  • the beehive-shaped design to capture multiple levels of light
  • it is constructed with concentric grooves that act as individual refracting surfaces.
  • the center is shaped like a magnifying glass, concentrating the beam


The first lens was installed in 1823 off the west coast of Fresnel’s home country, France, near Brittany, a land long-known for its rugged coasts. Here there were treacherous reefs that tragically and repeatedly snagged and destroyed ships. The new lens was a success.


Thereafter the French coast was lit up by Fresnel lenses. More info: Cordouan Lighthouse.


Early innovations began in France and Scotland, with America and other countries following. Chronology of Fresnel Lens Development.


Fresnel lens, Vashon Island, WA. Mt. Rainier in distance

Each lens was produced in brass-framed sections and could be shipped unassembled from the factory.


They were made in six different classifications, or orders. A 1st order lens is the largest size, at approximately 12 feet high (3.7 m), lengthening the light beam 26 miles.


Wikipedia Fresnel Lens


Here is a cross section of the Fresnel lens (on left) compared to a conventional lens of equivalent power (on right).

1 Cross section of a spherical Fresnel len, 2 Cross section of a conventional spherical lens

Courtesy Wikipedia


Article:  “The Fresnel Lens” written by Thomas Tag


Lighthouse Science: Why the Fresnel Lens Costs a Million Dollars

Fresnel Lens classifications. Courtesy


Lighthouse beacons have been  significantly modernized since the 1800s, but there are still lighthouses with Fresnel lenses–some in working order, some just on display. There are also many Fresnel light-refracting techniques in use today: spotlights, floodlights, railroad and traffic signals, camera and projector lenses and screens, and emergency vehicle lights.


List of U.S. lighthouses with Fresnel lenses


Many photographers and artists, including myself, hold a deep fascination and reverence for the miracle of light. How fortunate for us to have had Fresnel’s engineering skills to brighten this further.


Written by Jet Eliot.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.


Rotating Fresnel lens, 1st order, dated 1870, displayed at the Musée national de la Marine, Paris. Courtesy Wikipedia.


1st Order Fresnel lens, Cape Meares Lighthouse, Tillamook, OR, USA. Courtesy Wikipedia.



87 thoughts on “The Remarkable Fresnel Lens

    • It is incredible to see a Fresnel lens, I am sure you would like one, Amy, with all the photography and light you have studied in your life. Thank you for your visit today, and all days.

      • Light in general fascinates me, Jet. I’m just so drawn to it in any form. And you are just so welcome for me visiting here. I always enjoy coming here to see what you have. 😘

    • I hope it inspires you to look closely at the light source in your next visit to a lighthouse, Jill. If you come upon a Fresnel, you will witness the ingenuity and beauty firsthand. Thank you for always visiting and commenting, it is a treat.

  1. What a fascinating post…and what a beautiful item the Fresnel Lens is. I can only imagine that these beautiful lens must be big collector’s items…..and I would love to experience the light that you described.

    Thinking of you Jet…and hoping things are moving along in the right direction on your property.

    I am recently back from two weeks in Portugal and am just getting re-organised. The plan is that I will be here in my studio/flat in London through to early spring, other than some short trips within the UK which will allow me to get into a work flow.

    I hope you are able to enjoy a beautiful autumn, and again than you for this very interesting post. Janet 🙂

    • Welcome back, Janet. I knew you were at your special art heaven in Portugal, and I know I can look forward to reading about it. I imagine it was as wonderful as it always is. I’m really glad you enjoyed the Fresnel post. I have just fallen in love with these lenses and have had a great time learning more in my research for this post, and so happy to share the wealth. Cheers, dear friend.

    • The original Hartlepool Lighthouse was dismantled because it was in the line of fire of defensive guns in WWI. wow. It has gone through some reconstruction since then. The Museum of H. has several shipbuilding relics, but they don’t mention a Fresnel lens. I know your walking shoes will probably get you there someday to find out for sure. Always a pleasure, Jo — thank you.

  2. This was an enjoyable read! I love how sometimes form and function combine to produce a beautiful object, and these are beautiful. Lighthouses are almost always an architectural and locational delight, and if they have a Fresnel lens, then that’s the jackpot!
    Thanks for this, and have a wonderful weekend – we hope you’re beaming!

    • Well I know I’m not beaming as brightly as a Fresnel lens, pc, but the light is shining through. I so loved your comment, my friend, thank you. You make a good point that lighthouses are also a delight. Many thanks to you, and wishing you and Mrs. pc a very happy weekend.

  3. OK, I have now discovered a new lighthouse for my next trip to Washington!! Love your post and was fascinated with the history of the Fresnel lens. I love lighthouses and have had the priviledge of visiting a number of them from Northern California up through Oregon into Washington! Great post and again…welcome back to your house, I know it’s been a few weeks now and has to feel good!

    • The lighthouse on Vashon Island is a fun one, Kirt, you will like it. I didn’t find it on the list of U.S. lighthouses for some reason, but I was just there this past July, so I know it’s still open. You have to take a ferry out of Seattle, it takes about a half hour. You sure do get around, my friend, that’s great. It is good to be back home. It is strange, but we’re settled somewhere, and this is a great feeling. many thanks–

  4. Excellent subject for your interesting post. Lenses have been my passion since I was a little, when I got hold of a magnifying glass. It fascinated me to see the concentration of heat when the lens was exposed under the sun. And so on… I believe that some of the principles discovered by Fresnel were used in ancient times for many uses, even to burn ship sails and wood at the distance or melt metals. Your research always begets excellent stories my friend … 🙂

    • A few years ago we set a leaf on fire with the intensity of the sun under a magnifying glass, a little science lesson that we did with our grade school neighbor. It’s a common magnifying lens trick, but effective, and fascinating. I would guess you have done something like that too in your youth, HJ, and have been enjoying ever since. I’m glad you enjoyed the Fresnel post, I had a great time researching it. I enjoyed your comment, and always appreciate your visits. Thank you. I think I’ll pop over to see your Saturday Reds right now….

    • Thank you Val, I’m glad you found the Fresnel post interesting. There’s probably a few good Fresnel lighthouses lenses in Scotland, maybe next time you’re there….

    • With all the excellent photography you produce, I would imagine that lenses are an interest to you. So I’m really glad you enjoyed the Fresnel post, Dina — thanks so much for stopping by.

  5. How gauche! All this time, I’ve been saying ‘Frez-nell’ in my head 🙂
    The Sandy Hook Light (oldest lighthouse in the USA) recently reopened after renovations and I was able to climb to the top and see behind the ‘beehive.’ I’d seen these from the outside in other light houses, but this was the first time I saw how tiny the actual light bulb really is. It’s a remarkable invention that makes that tiny light visible for miles!

    • Your great comment had me googling Sandy Hook, T, and I see that it has a 3rd Order Fresnel lens. I’m glad you witnessed the beauty and power of this lens at Sandy Hook. I love that George Washington wrote to the Senate in 1790 about getting a lighthouse erected at Sandy Hook. Many thanks–

  6. You are a font of the most interesting information, Jet! I am so grateful for your curiosity about and appreciation for the many wonders – large and small – of our world. Sending best wishes to you and Athena from Munich!

    • All this time you have known me, Nan (my whole life), my love for the Fresnel lenses is probably something you never knew. So how wonderful that you enjoyed this post and the Fresnel lens with me. I hope as you fly out of Munich today, that your journey is safe and easy. Auf Wiedersehen!

  7. A fascinating post Jet. I had not appreciated that that lens technology was so widely used. Even with today’s modern technology the lighthouses are still invaluable, as are the lifeboats and crews that rescue those in trouble on the sea. I’ve worked with them in projects in the past and the stories they tell and the history of wrecks and rescues is amazing – the fresnel lens design is so important!

    • The sea is a mighty force. I liked hearing of your experiences talking and working with rescue crews, Alastair, and your appreciation of the Fresnel lens. And I agree, the Fresnel is still so important today. Always a great treat to hear from you, my warmest thanks.

  8. I loved all of this information about the Fresnel lens. I’ve been to Angel Island many times…but never in saw that light in the Visitor Center. Most likely, I’ve only hiked and biked on the island, and never went IN the Visitor Center. ;-0 That’s a sin! Next time we visit, I’ll be sure to go in there.

    • I’m delighted you enjoyed the Fresnel info, Pam. The lens at Angel Island is near the door, and it’s easy to walk past it. So how wonderful when you get back to AI that you will see it. We both have a fondness and special place in our hearts for AI and that whole area of the Bay. I like that. 🙂

  9. You are such a wealth of fun information. It’s always such a great pleasure to visit. Seems I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for lighthouses. Used to think (in much earlier days) that I’d love to live in one. These days I’m afraid the stairs would be far too formidable for most. Perhaps one with an elevator? 😉

  10. Beautiful!
    Because I live in an island (beautiful, you can check photos on my blog), we a lot of lighthouses. They are beautiful, with spectacular views to the ocean. And now, I found your post and i can compare our lighthouses with these one, smaller than those we have here. 😀

  11. Lighthouses are always objects of romance, and the fresnel lenses combine the best engineering techniques with efforts to prevent tragedy. The stories of the keepers of the light are also the stuff of legends.

    • There is so much history and yes, legends, and beauty to lighthouses. And I agree, Cindy, the Fresnel lenses were an engineering phenomenon that saved lives. Glad you enjoyed this, and stopped by. I cannot seem to access your blog posts, but I sure enjoy it when you stop by.

  12. Reading your post Jet I wondered why lasers have never been used in Lighthouses? The light would certainly travel further.Very interesting post.I’ve visited several Lighthouses along the northern California coast as well as Oregon.

    • Glad to hear you’re thinking about the lights, Wayne. Although I am no expert on lighthouses, I think lasers are a part of today’s lighthouse illumination, though I do not know to what extent. I do know that the beauty of the Fresnel is that it cuts a wider swath of light, whereas laser beams are more narrow. Glad you enjoyed the post, I thought you might, as your being a photographer and working with many lenses and light all the time, this lens adds thought to the topic of light.

  13. Lighthouses all have their own stories to tell, which is why I love them. Nickel Creek, a bluegrass trio from the 90’s, sings a beautiful one (The Lighthouse’s Tale). What a great history you’ve presented on the Fresnel lens .. may not have known about it otherwise. Cheers, Jet!

    • Oh Shannon, what a delight to hear from you. I’m happy you enjoyed the Fresnel lens and the lighthouses. Next time you’re in a lighthouse, you will know what to look for. My friend, a great treat — thank you.

  14. This is so cool, Jet!!! I do believe You have just instigated a trip to our lighthouse! I haven’t been in a year or so and am wondering what we have! This sounds vaguely familiar. When we are standing up top, looking out to the ocean, I’ll shout a hello to that will ricochet off some helpful cloud and zoom its way westward to You and Yours!!! I hope all is well out Your way. Than You and Cheers!!! 🙂

    • Dear Katy, I loved this cheerful comment, thank you. I hope you do return to your lighthouse and shout that hello, and take in the beauty of the ocean and also the lens. with many smiles and thanks–Jet

      • Hey Jet….I am embarrassingly slow on the uptake as I just became aware of the fires in CA Saturday and was catching up on what’s going on lastnight. Just occurred to me You may have a post. I’ll look; but I AM so sorry CA is going through that again. Can’t even believe it’s this bad again so soon. I hope You and Yours are well. ❤️

      • Hi Katy, Yes, California is on fire again, and it’s pretty bad. I am safe and am in between the two bad firestorms. The northern Calif. fire titled “Fire Storm” is about a hundred miles away. The LA fires are many hundreds of miles away. Still, we are choked now for five days with blue-gray smoke, raging winds, unable to go out unless absolutely necessary, schools closed, wearing face masks with breathing filters. Thank you for your kind inquiry.

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