The leader of the project to remove the enormous antique lens at the Point Conception Lighthouse, restore it and put it on display in a museum, is enjoying the massive job, he told the Lompoc Historical Society on Thursday night.
Jim Woodward formed his own company, The Lighthouse Consultant based in Arizona, after a long career with the U.S. Coast Guard, the agency that takes care of the nation’s lighthouses. In more than 50 years, Woodward has worked on 200-plus lighthouse lenses, he said.
His current job will result in a new display scheduled to open in September at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum.
“We’ll be working for quite a few weeks on the restoration,” he said, and invited the public to come and see the work being done.
The Point Conception Lighthouse lens, which was built in 1854 and brought by ship around Cape Horn from France, is called a Fresnel lens. Invented by Frenchman Augustine Fresnel, the lenses focused the dim light from oil-burning lamps of the era, using a series of prisms, into a bright flash that could be seen for miles as the lens rotated on a platform.
They were state of the art in the 19th century.
Woodward said that Fresnel lighthouse lenses came in different “orders,” or sizes, from first to sixth order. Point Conception’s lens is “first order,” or the largest size built in regular production, and can project light at a longer distance than any of the others.
Just a first-order lens itself, not counting the platform, stands 10 feet tall and weighs up to 2 tons.
A sixth order lens is about the size of a watermelon, and Woodward said they are, by far, the rarest today.
“When they were decommissioned, people tended to just tuck them under their arm and take them home,” he told the audience of about 40 people.
They were mostly used in harbor installations.
Eventually, smaller, cheap one-piece dish-shaped lenses made of cast glass, using newer optical technology developed for airports, started supplanting the Fresnels.
Each original first order Fresnel lens took up to two years to manufacture, Woodward said, since they were made from many individual glass prisms.
Fresnel lenses required a lot of work to maintain.
“The Coast Guard hated them because they were so maintenance intensive. There’s so many pieces in there that can fail if they are not constantly maintained.”
The newer one-piece lenses, called DCPs, were maintenance free. They came out in the early 20th century, and the Coast Guard started replacing the old Fresnel lenses with them as soon as they could, said Woodward.
To restore a Fresnel antique lens, the components must be taken apart and placed on big tables, Woodward said, where they are meticulously restored and then put back together.
Woodward is one of only five lighthouse “lampists,” as they are called, in the entire country.
And, he said, “I am the only person I’m aware of who studied under a real Lighthouse Service lampist.”
Woodward studied under Arthur Mienhold, an elderly former U.S. Lighthouse Service lampist, beginning in 1965 when they were both in the Coast Guard.
The Lighthouse Service existed until 1939, when it was merged into the Coast Guard.
The Lighthouse Service once had 800 lampists, whose sole job was to keep the lenses in America’s lighthouses in good operating condition, Woodward said.
The lens in the Point Conception lighthouse is in remarkably good shape for not having had someone living there with it since 1973, when the lighthouse was automated.
“They like the warmth of people living in the same structure with them,” he said. He attributes it to the climate at Point Conception.
The Point Conception Lighthouse, which is one of California’s oldest, cannot be visited casually by the general public. It’s on privately-owned land, and arrangements to visit it must be made through the Coast Guard.
“It’s very difficult to get to see it,” said Karen Paaske, president of the Lompoc Historical Society. “The Coast Guard only goes out there once every few weeks. I was one of the lucky ones who saw it on a field trip in the third grade. They used to take us down to Surf station, we’d get on the train, and go to the lighthouse. Most of us have not seen it since. Then the Historical Society went recently, and I was thrilled to see it again.”