National Aids to Navigation Museum

The National Aids to Navigation Museum is located in the atrium of Canfield Hall on the USCG Training Center in Yorktown, Virginia. The museum includes eleven Fresnel Lenses (the most complete collection of such lenses on display in the United States), four artifact cases, ship models, four display panels and many other interesting artifacts.

The facility is open to all who have authorized access to the base. Limited tours may also be available for other groups with prior notice.


Aids to Navigation are placed at strategic points along the coasts and navigable waterways as markers and guides to enable mariners to determine at all times their exact position with relation to land and hidden dangers. ATON includes buoys, day beacons, lighthouses, minor lights, lightships, fog signals, radio beacons, marks and other devices used to guide mariners. The first lit navigation aids were fires burning on raised platforms or on shore. In 1716, Boston Light was first illuminated by simple tallow candles. By the early 19th century, lighthouses were using lamps and reflectors.


For almost 300 years, men and women have worked both ashore and afloat, at home and abroad to maintain Aids to Navigation (ATON) for the United States. This heritage began in 1716 with lighthouse keepers in the American colonies. It continued in 1789, under the U.S. Lighthouse Service at lighthouses and aboard lighthouse tenders and lightships. After 1939, the USCG assumed ATON responsibilities, still manning lighthouses and lightships, but lighthouse tenders were referred to as buoy tenders.

In 1822, Frenchman Augustin Jean Fresnel (pronounced freh-nell) designed a superior lighthouse lens system that used glass prisms to bend and focus light. By surrounding the light source, a Fresnel Lens was able to capture and focus at least 80% of the light and project it more than 20 miles. Lenses were classed based upon the distance of the light source to the lens. The sizes ranged from the largest first order to the smallest sixth order.

Although France and Great Britain adopted the Fresnel Lens quickly, it took the United States over thirty years to completely convert to the new technology. By the onset of the Civil War in 1861, almost all of the nation's lights were fitted with Fresnel Lenses.

The Fresnel Lens was one of the most significant developments in the field of aids to navigation and the prism technology is still in use today.

The atrium is home to eleven 1st through 6th Order Fresnel Lenses and is the most complete collection of such lenses on display in the United States. Click on some of the numbers below for an image and description.

1956 NATON Manual



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Last Modified 12/21/2016