Fresnel lighthouse lens returns to Georgetown S.C. Maritime Museum

08/01/2014 6:55 AM

08/01/2014 10:08 AM

An integral piece of the lighthouse once used to safely guide ships into port in Georgetown is now on display in the city at the South Carolina Maritime Museum.

The Fresnel lens was unveiled during a private event Thursday that about 100 people attended at the museum, located at 729 Front St. in Georgetown.

The event marked the return of the lens to Georgetown after a two-year effort to bring it back.

The lens, invented by French engineer and physicist, Augustine-Jean Fresnel, is a combination of prism shapes angled to gather light, intensify it and project outward – enabling visibility for up to 15 miles out to sea.

The concentrated light reflected from the Fresnel lens came from a lantern placed inside, and lit by whale oil, and later kerosene. Eventually rotating beacons – used today – became the light source.

Georgetown’s Fresnel lens – which has remained the property of the U.S. Coast Guard – wound up at a U.S. Coast Guard regional museum in Florida, “with no local ties” said U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer First Class, David Browne, the officer in charge of Aids to Navigation.

Aids to Navigation maintain and provide services to the federally managed waters from North Carolina to the Isle of Palms in Charleston and have been “very instrumental in ensuring the safe return of the Fresnel lens,” said Susan Sanders of the South Carolina Maritime Museum.

Maritime Museum board member Robert “Mac” McAlister initiated the campaign for its return.

McAlister, who is the chairperson for the acquisitions and exhibits committee, estimated it would take $10,000 for the expenses involved with getting the lens back to Georgetown. To date the total cost is about $14,000, he said.

Browne said once the paperwork was filed requesting a long-term loan for the lens, “things got serious.” He said the museum also needed a minimum of $250,000 liability coverage to take possession of the lens – “something that’s priceless.”

The lens will remain the property of the U.S. Coast Guard during its 10-year loan – and must be properly displayed in a secured enclosure.

Sally Swineford, a volunteer at the museum who has been involved for 25 years with the Wooden Boat Show, which raises funds annually for the museum said, “It’s very satisfying.”

Susan Sanders, who Swineford said helped put the event together, said “Everyone has taken great pride to bring this artifact back to the community.”

The crowd Thursday appeared excited when the light was turned on during the unveiling for the first time since it was installed on a pedestal for display about two weeks ago.

McAlister said the lens was placed on the pedestal by an expert authorized by the Coast Guard and overseen by Browne.

The light is provided by a 25 LED bulb and, magnified by the lens, could provide visibility up to “12 nautical miles,” said Browne.

The community is invited to stop in and view the lens and a video that was made after a trip to the lighthouse, McAlister said.

The video along with “Friends of the Lens” T-shirts and photographs taken by a local photographer will be on sale at the museum as part of the effort to raise funds to offset the costs involved in the return and maintenance of the lens, which includes cleaning “that costs around $3,300,” said Swineford.

“We are very, very proud to be the keepers of the lens,” said Sanders.

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