WORLD’S LARGEST MANUFACTURER OF OPHTHALMIC LENSES

Article Out Of Worcester Sunday Telegram
Dated: August 10, 1958
By: Ivan Sandrof

Ben Franklin, had he lived, would have been particularly proud of the American Optical Company in Southbridge.

He invented bifocals. AO went ahead to make better lenses, put them on the noses of the near-sighted and far-sighted all over the world, among other aids, boons and blessings to eyesight, and a measure of profit to its stockholders.

AO, as it is popularly known by employees and the thriving town of Southbridge, is currently marking its 125th anniversary. That makes it, if not the oldest industry in Central Massachusetts, certainly one of the oldest.

What a wealth of industrial excitement goes on here!

Motors roar and whirl, lights glow, machines click and tick, levers snap and grab, belts move in stately array, molten glass bubbles in soft, wet snapping. There is an accumulative mass effort here on the part of over 4,000 persons - for this is the largest manufacturer of ophthalmic lenses in the world.

There is the tendency to forget how big and how much is done by industries like AO, which are mainstays not only in their immediate communities but in whole counties and even states.

Besides the main Southbridge plant, AO employs another 6,000 or so in Brattleboro, Vt., Keene, N.H., Chelsea, Frederick, Md., Putnam, Conn. Abroad AO plants sprout in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, England, Mexico, with sales groups in 130 nations besides the United States. Last year AO did $78,000,000 worth of business - all of which gives you an idea of place and space.

You might think that with all that size, quality might take a fall. Quality, somehow, seems associated with a craftsman beating at something all by his lonesome - with maybe a cat, or dog to keep him company.

But - in the AO frame plant alone there are over 550 operations or handlings of various parts and the assembly of some 3,000 different kinds of frames, of which 56 are inspections.

An average pair of lens takes 64 operations, bifocals 137 operations, trifocals, 142. The first is checked 29 times, the second 38 and the third 43 times. Man-machine hours are 6, 11 and 11 1/2 for each of these three types of glasses. Or, as one spectator said at the spectacle of spectacles - what a grind!

In its 125 years, AO has learned a great deal. It has learned that approximately 40 per cent of Americans (that’s about 80,000,000) wear glasses - but that approximately 70 per cent should. And the need for eyeglasses increases from 20 per cent of the population below 20 years to 90 per cent of those over 60.

You who wear glasses fuss with optometrists, ophthalmologists or opticians before you walk away with perfect eyesight restored. At one point of the game, it was customary to reach over a counter filled with bins containing eyeglasses of different strength. You tried them on, one after the other, until you found one that didn’t send the floor reeling to ceiling - and that was for you.

Believe it or not - but there are still 44 states in the nation where glasses are sold in this hit or miss manner!

In 1833 - when AO modestly began - impaired vision was a handicap borne by millions. There was hardly anything you could do when eyesight began to fail except grin and bear it - and the grin was frequently lacking.

William Beecher, a farm boy from Connecticut with finely tempered fingers, moved to Southbridge after serving a jeweler’s apprenticeship in Providence and opened a small shop in 1833 for the making of spectacles.

He had seen a clumsy pair, imported from England as were all eyeglasses then, vowed he could do better himself - and did.

That day marked the beginning of the optical industry in America.

The superior quality of his product and reasonable prices boomed business and Beecher hired hands, moving to larger quarters in 1839.

Making spectacles then was no cinch. A fair output for a good bench hand was six pairs a day. Stock was rolled out by hand; the blessing of power was yet to come.

An early apprentice jotted down some impressions: “Mr. Beecher was a hard working man, and when we had stock to roll out by hand, he was always on one of the cranks. It took four of us to ‘man the rolls,’ and it was no boy’s play, I can tell you. Some of us would remark about it being hard work, but Mr. Beecher would say, ‘It will be all right when you get used to it’... The Boss took a pinch of snuff often, and we all took a sweat.”

But the sweat left when the boys were allowed to hook suckers up through a hole in ice, play ball on the grounds or fly a 14-foot kite which was pulled in by a windlass.

A series of changes began in the small factory. It was sold to Ammidown & Putney, with Beecher remaining to teach the business to Ammidown’s son, Lucius. The business became Ammidown & Son, then Ammidown & Co. Beecher came back, and with one of his former apprentices, ran it as Beecher & Cole.

Meanwhile quantity and quality walked hand in hand. By 1852 a grand total of 14,919 pairs of silver, steel and gold spectacles were made.

Beecher sold out to his partner who kept it running as Robert H. Cole & Co. It remained for another Connecticut farm boy, George Washington Wells, to give an enduring push to the company.

Wells was a splendid example of the natural New England mechanic. Through his inventive genius production began to soar. By 1869 there were 85 employees. The company did a gross business of $50,000.

Impatient at being held back, Wells decided to quit and go into business himself. A conference resulted. When it ended the new American Optical Co. was announced with George W. Wells as secretary.

Thus began the formal association of Wells with AO - a relationship that lasted 92 years from father through sons to grandsons. Their influence and control made AO into a world-renowned optical manufacturer.

Most of it was pioneering. There were no machines to do certain jobs. AO invented them. There were no techniques for bifocal production, for various grinding and polishing segment countersinks, for fusing, grinding and polishing reading disks. AO created such techniques from scratch and kept improving them.

Such pioneering gave AO and its employees over 1,800 patents! It led to AO’s proud record as the largest producer of ophthalmic lenses in the world. Dissatisfied with available glass, it demanded its own formula and has achieved acknowledged leadership in a superior product created to its own exacting standards - better than anything seen before.

In 1874 there were five styles and sizes of frames. Today AO makes some 3,000 different frames in a special frame plant. “Women change clothes continually,” said dynamic Victor D. Kniss, vice president of the company, “but they’ll wear the same pair of glasses for 12 years!”

Dedicated to changing all this, AO now puts out frames and lenses to match any outfit, color of hair, shape of face. Research is continual, has yielded such interesting items as aluminum-trimmed frames, both light and strong; plastic lenses which remove the bugaboo of breakage; a new sunglass that shuts out 99.8 per cent of harmful ultraviolet rays yet keeps colors true as seen by the eye.

Ophthalmic optics bounce about AO like ping pong balls at the Worcester Boys’ Club. Words like diopters, coflexure, lensometers, colmascope, axometer, phorometer, are common gossip and the laws of refraction are as easily understood here as baseball in the bleachers.

The war chapters of AO are spectacular. In World War I it furnished more than 2 1/2 million lenses of all types to the government, apart from vital military and optical instruments. It equipped and put into the field a base optical unit and eight mobile units for the A.E.F., marking a new advance in military history.

In World War II, AO was still in the lead. In 1942-43 alone it provided 18,300,000 pairs of lenses to the armed forces and to high priority industries. In one year it furnished 1,400,000 prescriptions to the Army and at the same time took care of all civilian prescriptions.

At the same time over 10 million goggle frames and individual safety products were made, approximately five million pairs of sunglasses and over 67,000 ophthalmic testing and refracting devices.

But spectacles and frames - and cases in which to put them - are only part of AO’s total production. It includes a vast range of refracting equipment, orthoptic instruments, diagnostic instruments, instruments for measuring, microscopes and accessories, projection equipment, optical machinery, field charting machinery and instruments, eye protection and safety equipment, special military products, camera lenses, special scientific instruments. The total classes of items made by AO is over 175.

J. W. Fecker, Inc., of Pittsburgh, PA., a subsidiary company, manufactures, among other items, a satellite and missile tracking telescope. Labeled IGOR, from its first letters of Instrument, Ground Observation Recording, the item uses reflected sunlight to track or locate such satellites as the American Explorer or Russia’s Sputniks zooming into orbit.

AO’s artificial eyes are one of its brightest chapters. Known as the Monoplex Department, and made up of a small specialized group of 15 artists, it constitutes the largest artificial eye laboratory in the United States and one of the foremost in the world.

Monoplex was an outgrowth of World War II. German craftsmen had a monopoly on artificial eyes, handing down the secrets from father to son. When war shut off the supply, a substitute was sought and found by AO in the form of plastic-methyl methacrylate. It was better than anything ever used for the purpose and is an exclusive formula of AO artisans.

New techniques gave wearers of artificial eyes a comfort never before possible and if properly made and fitted, they can be left in place almost indefinitely and are almost impossible to detect. AO, to match Nature in all her moods, lists 75 stock colors in 18 different basic shapes, making a total of 1,350 different eyes that can be chosen. They go to all parts of the United States, Canada, Central and South America, the Middle East, Japan, Europe and Africa.

As a result of its work, the Monoplex Department of AO has become one of the few training centers for eye fitters in the United States. Practitioners come here from all over the country to learn the latest techniques of what is medically known as ocular prosthetics. AO estimates that one person in 500 wears an artificial eye, but that one in 300 should.

The Department made some sort of record several years ago when it got an order for an artificial eye for a prize bull, whose show value was ruined by lack of an eye. The experts made it, shipped it and assume the bull went on to greater glories. It was the largest eye ever made by Monoplex, truly a bull’s eye.

The name of Todd-AO, made possible by the Southbridge company, crept into show business five years ago. It is a new optical system for moving pictures that provides superior life-like projection on wider screens. The successful movies, Oklahoma, Around the World in 80 Days and South Pacific were made with this process, which although successful, has yet to show a profit.

Once King Charles II of England had 6,000 lenses made for him by a French optician before finding one that helped his myopic astigmatism.

You can walk into a skilled optometrist or oculist today and get a pair of eyeglasses better than the King, or his optician, ever dreamed of - thanks to the Southbridge company which has made its slogan, “Better Living Through Better Vision” become an acknowledged fact around the world.

Return to AO Coverage page

Return to AO History Main Page