Aids to Navigation Technology Continues to Evolve with the LED Beacon

By Bob Trapani, Jr.

Assateague Lighthouse Fresnel Lens
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

First order Fresnel lens from
Assateague Lighthouse, VA

In 1822, Jean Augustin Fresnel introduced an invention that would forever revolutionize the lighthouse beacon, as well as the science of illumination, when he introduced the classical Fresnel lens.

The Fresnel lens was a complex and innovative creation based on the scientific principals of lighting, which are still being used today some 184 years later. At the same time, each lens also represented a fascinating and beautiful work of art that served as the crown jewel atop every lighthouse whose lantern it graced. But even the Fresnel lens, for all its wonderful service to the maritime community, was eventually forced to surrender its relevance to time and technology. The same spirit of brilliant ingenuity that achieved the invention of the Fresnel lens would soon inspire many more experiments for improving illumination during the ensuing years, aspirations that continue to burn bright in 21st century lighting technology pursuits.

Ongoing breakthroughs with fuels, mechanisms and lamps eventually enabled the U.S. Lighthouse Service, and later U.S. Coast Guard, to introduce optics that were as operationally efficient as the Fresnel lens, yet more economically feasible to maintain. The classical lens subsequently began to be phased out slowly from the mid-1940s onward by such optics as the DCB-36 areobeacon, which was introduced to major lighthouses around the nation following World War II. These same technological advances also helped spell the end for the lighthouse keeper whose presence was removed during the automation process that began in the 1920s and accelerated in the 1960s. The result of these advancements in lighting technology (and sound signals as well) brought to a close the most romantic chapter in America’s lighthouse history.

Carmanah 702 Series LED
Photo by Ron Foster

Carmanah Technologies'
702 Series LED beacon - the
new wave of lighting in ATON

Today, many lighthouse enthusiasts bemoan the passing of the golden age of lighthouses as they yearn to relive the time when the Fresnel lens and its dedicated lightkeepers served as the heart and soul of America’s coastal sentinels. Yet, the one ironic fact that is often overlooked when reminiscing about the golden age of lighthouses is that the Fresnel lens had likewise replaced earlier historic illuminating methods and devices of the 18th and 19th centuries when it was introduced as an unprecedented technological breakthrough of its time. The natural progression of human achievement that ushered in the Fresnel lens eventually supplanted this beloved invention in the same spirit of scientific aspiration that originally gave birth to its creation.

Hence, the world of aids to navigation has continued to stay the course; constantly searching for the very best science has to offer in lighting technology. One such fascinating advancement is the light emitting diode, or LED for short. Though the technology that comprises the LED light has been around for some thirty years, its ongoing evolution has now presented itself as an attractive option for deployment in the field of 21st century aids to navigation.

An LED is scientifically defined as a semiconductor diode made of gallium arsenide phosphide that emits light when voltage is applied. That said, LED technology can be better explained for practical understanding by reviewing the following facts...

Carmanah LED beacons
Photo by Nancy Dodd

Lighthouse enthusiasts are fascinated by
the new technology of LED lights
like Carmanah's beacons

  • New LED lamps are very durable and have no glass to shatter or filament to break, thus taking far more abuse than the traditional incandescent lamp
  • LED’s can emit light equal to an incandescent lamp while consuming only 10% of the electricity or battery power that operates the beacon
  • LED lamps have a life span of 100,000 hours or up to 11 years of continuous use as opposed to the average incandescent lamp that burns out after an average of 500 hours
  • LED lamps practically eliminate costly maintenance

LED technology will eventually replace most – if not all, incandescent systems currently utilized in lighted aids to navigation during the years to come. As a result of this irresistible transition, our waterways will become even safer due to the low failure rate associated with LED optics. In addition, the LED will help the Coast Guard reduce ATON operating expenses by saving on the costs of electricity, batteries, replacement lamps, labor and potential expenses incurred from lost labor or accidents caused by a discrepant lighted aid.

If Jean Augustin Fresnel were around today, he would have most certainly applauded the scientific advances in LED technology. Fresnel was a dedicated student of science who set out to create a better light source when he invented the classical Fresnel lens for the lighthouse. In this same creative manner, the LED will soon be the universal light source of choice to serve as the guiding lights for the world of 21st century ATON until it too is eventually ushered into the pages of history by advances not yet contemplated.


Harry Spencer with a Carmanah LED
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

Harry Spencer of Lewes, DE
displays a Carmanah
600 Series LED beacon

Buoy in Pepper Creek, DE
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A Carmanah 701 Series
LED beacon sits
atop a wreck buoy in
Pepper Creek, DE