The design allows the construction of lenses of large aperture and short focal length without the mass and volume of material that would be required by a lens of conventional design. Compared to conventional bulky lenses, the Fresnel lens is much thinner, larger, and flatter, and captures more oblique light from a light source, thus allowing lighthouses to be visible over much greater distances.
The Fresnel lens reduces the amount of material required compared to a conventional spherical lens by dividing the lens into a set of concentric annular sections known as "Fresnel zones", which are theoretically limitless.
In the first (and largest) variations of the lens, each zone was actually a separate prism. Though a Fresnel lens might appear like a single piece of glass, closer examination reveals that it is many small pieces. It was not until modern computer-controlled milling equipment (CNC) could turn out large complex pieces that these lenses were manufactured from single pieces of glass.
Fresnel lens design allows a substantial reduction in thickness (and thus mass and volume of material), at the expense of reducing the imaging quality of the lens, which is why precise imaging applications such as photography still use conventional bulky (non-Fresnel) lenses.
Fresnel lenses are usually made of glass or plastic; their size varies from large (old historical lighthouses, meter size) to medium (book-reading aids, OHP viewgraph projectors) to small (TLR/SLR camera screens, micro-optics). In many cases they are very thin and flat, almost flexible, with thicknesses in the 1 to 5 millimeter range.
The idea of creating a thinner, lighter lens by making it with separate sections mounted in a frame is often attributed to Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. The marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794) proposed grinding such a lens from a single thin piece of glass. French physicist and engineer Augustin-Jean Fresnel is most often given credit for the development of the multi-part lens for use in lighthouses. The first Fresnel lens was used in 1823 in the Cordouan lighthouse at the mouth of the Gironde estuary; its light could be seen from more than 20 miles (32 km) out.