The On-Line Museum and Encyclopedia of Vision Aids.
American Optical's First Building
Early image of the factories
American Optical Main Plant Clock Tower, 2004
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(Much of the information and the nearly all of the images on this page were assembled with the kind assistance of Dick Whitney, curator of the Optical Heritage Museum.)
Ingenious and courageous men laid the foundations of America’s optical industry. Spectacles, for which all Americans depended upon foreign countries, were very costly as to be in the luxury class. William Beecher (1805-1892) moved to Southbridge in 1826 to start a jewelry and watch business. In 1833, his small optical business originated in an upper room of the jewelry store on Main Street. Robert Cole, age 14, was his apprentice. Beecher felt that New England workmen were capable of making spectacles that could compete with the foreign variety. By 1843, he had created the first steel eyeglasses in America. Steel-framed spectacles outranked all others in demand, and he developed an inexpensive method to produce them there in Southbridge. Beecher sold his business to Holdridge Ammidown in 1840 but repurchased an interest again in 1851. Finally in 1862 Beecher retired and the firm became Robert H. Cole and Company. Hiram C. Wells had joined the firm in 1852, the first of many members of the Wells family to be associated with this industry.
George Washington Wells (1846-1912), younger brother of Hiram C., was born on a farm in South Woodstock, Connecticut. In 1864 he entered the employ of Robert H. Cole and Co. as a lad of just 18. He was a genius in mechanics and rapidly gained great respect. There was no manufacturing problem he could not solve. George Wells purchased an interest in the company and because of this, he later became one of the incorporators of American Optical when negotiations led to a merging of all the various interests of several spectacle shops.
The business was organized and incorporated under the name of American Optical Company on Feb 26, 1869. The real estate and water privilege had become the property of A.O. Co. earlier that year. The company’s defined object was “to manufacture and sell spectacles and eyeglasses of gold, silver, steel and plated metals, also rings and thimbles, and such other like articles as said company may from time to time desire to make.”
The total stock of A.O. Co. was 400 shares, capitalized for $ 40,000, of which George Wells owned 40 shares. Robert H. Cole was the largest shareholder with 150 shares. By Feb 1870, 20 additional shares were transferred to Wells from Cole. George Wells became Treasurer in 1879 and President in Feb. 1891.
George W. Wells had responsibility over the lower Spec Shop, where goods other than gold were manufactured, and he also had charge of setting the lenses into the frames. His experience in machine work and tool-making enabled him to do much to innovate and invent newer machines and methods of producing goods. His skill and ingenuity allowed him to become a chief contributor to the growth and success of the company. By 1909, he had taken out 26 patents and 27 others had been granted to the company. Wells discovered a new method of edging split bifocal lenses. He made eccentric rolls to taper spectacle stock; he built the first lens cutting machine, even now only slightly modified; he built an apparatus for fitting in end pieces; another was for automatic milling and tapping of spectacle end pieces; another was for jumping and forming spectacle bridges, and many other developments were to shorten and improve the method of manufacture.
Rimless goods were first made in 1874. By 1883, they began making ophthalmic lenses. In 1893, cylindrical and compound lenses were first manufactured and the Dioptric system was adopted. Other improvements offered by the Southbridge works were the Lensometer, 1921; Tillyer Lens 1925; Ful-Vue frames, 1930; and Ful-Vue bifocals, 1931. Only the scientist and the optician can estimate the value of these changes, improvements, and inventions to man’s most priceless faculty – eyesight.
By 1933, plants covered 17 ½ acres of floor space in thirty six connected structures. AO was the oldest optical company in the U.S and one of the era’s stories of industrial success. They owned and controlled many patents. Until just recently they were one of the largest optical manufacturing companies in the world.
Their collection of spectacles was organized in the early 1980’s as the Ocular Heritage Museum. Materials had been accumulated over a 150 year period, although the collection of eyewear was actually begun in the 1880’s by George Wells with a significant group of spectacle cases. Eventually there were over 3,000 frames going back several centuries. And when it was opened, in conjunction with the 150th birthday of American Optical. on 6/18/83, there were nearly 800 frames on display for the public to view. The most valuable piece, a centerpiece and highlight for any collection or display, was a sparkling diamond-studded iridium platinum frame by Schiaparella. It was worth $ 21,000 at the time. It had 201 diamonds totaling 7.75 karats. Five jeweled frames had been cast in 1955 to introduce the Madame Schaparielli ‘signature design’ series, the first of its kind offered by anyone for any product in the world.
Currently most the “AO” museum belongings are in storage, with items on display at several locations in Southbridge. The Optical Heritage Museum, Inc. is a functioning organization, and is actively pursuing the establishment of a permanent home in the Historic District of Downtown Southbridge.
(move your mouse over the show to stop it, click to go to the complete slide show with larger images and descriptions.)
Todd – AO
Tillyer Corrected Curve Series
Minus Toric Series
Implementation of Franklin Style
Plastic Photochromic Lens
Permalite Abrasion Resistant coating
AO Compact Small Frame PAL
First Safety Goggle
First Heat Tempered Glass Lens (added
impact resistance lens strength)
Invented Calobar and Cruxite
Fulvue Frame (first with temples
attached at the top)
Executive Safety lens
Additive Trial Sets
Non Contact Tonometer (1972)
Solid State Laser
1. American Optical Company, from Worcester County, A Narrative History (Vol. III) – 1933
2. Notes read by George W. Wells at the Quinebaug Historical Society meeting, Nov. 29, 1909
3. “Last week I Couldn’t Spell Curator…” by John Young (His recollections of organizing the AO Museum Collection in 1983)