FLINT, Mich. (CN) — The United States sued a Michigan museum for two giant, century-old lenses that “revolutionized lighthouse optics” in the 1800s, making light visible for more than 20 miles.
The United States sued the Maritime Exchange Museum and its owner Steven J. Gronow on Sept. 6 in Flint Federal Court, demanding two Fresnel lenses. The government estimates the value of the two lenses as $600,000, but says that as “historical artifacts, each is irreplaceable.”
French engineer August-Jean Fresnel (1788-1827) invented the giant lenses for lighthouses, with a revolutionary design that conceptually anticipated the development of the laser. “Resembling giant beehives, the lenses consist of a system of multi-faceted glass prisms mounted in a brass framework,” the United States says. “The prisms reflect and refract light and magnify it, taking rays of light that would normally scatter in all directions and focusing them into a single beam.”
Before the Fresnel lens, lighthouses could cast light only 8 to 12 miles. Fresnel essentially doubles that.
Because Fresnel lenses are “extremely fragile and expensive to repair,” most Fresnel lenses in the United States have been removed from lighthouses and put in museums. They are made in six “orders,” the first order being the largest: 12 feet tall and more than 6 feet in diameter. These giant lenses were used on seacoasts. The smallest lenses, the sixth order, are about 1 foot wide and used in harbors and channels.
The United States demands possession of the Spring Point Lens, a fifth order lens, which was installed in the Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse in Maine in 1897, and the Belle Isle Lens, a fourth order lens, which was installed in the Belle Isle Lighthouse in Belle Isle, Mich., in 1882.
The curator of the Coast Guard’s historic assets learned in 2009 that the museum had the lenses, which are government property, according to the complaint. The museum offered the lenses for sale on its website in late 2009, but removed the listing, though they have been offered for sale “on other marketplaces,” the government says.
The Coast Guard curator asked for “official government documentation” on the lenses in a letter of Feb. 4, 2010, but the museum never responded. Despite Coast Guard “guidance” not to move the lenses, the museum did move them, to the possession of its attorney, in November 2014, then took them back in late 2015 or early this year, the government says.
The museum has “refused to comply with all requests to return the lenses.”
The government calls the Spring Point Lens an “irreplaceable historic artifact of great beauty.” The Coast Guard removed it from the Maine lighthouse in 1960 when the lighthouse was automated. It estimates its value as $350,000.
The Belle Isle Lens was removed sometime between the decommissioning of its lighthouse in 1930 and its demolition in 1943. Its estimated value is $250,000.
Aside from the lenses being federal property, the government says, Gronow and his museum are “not properly insuring, conserving, protecting or securing” the lenses: for instance, moving them twice, despite the Coast Guard’s warning.
The United States seeks declaratory judgment that it owns the lenses, and possession of them.
Gronow and his museum did not respond to a request for comment.
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