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Recollections of "Doc Tillyer"


Taken from The News, Tuesday, March 30, 1982:
By Roy C. Gunter, Jr.


While this Science and Health Care Page is devoted entirely to Dr. Edgar D. Tillyer, it is not intended to be a detailed accounting of his many scientific accomplishments both before and after he was named director of research of the American Optical Co. in 1916. These can be found in the July 1954 issue of the Journal of the Optical Society of the establishment of the Edgar D. Tillyer Award for scientific accomplishments in the field of human vision.

Rather this article is about a man who lived on Maple Street in Southbridge, just a short walk from the center of town. A man who was known by most as one who invariably wore an old grey felt hat and always owned a large Buick. To those whose path crossed his, usually at the American Optical Company, he was much, much more. He was a teacher, genius, friend, inspiration, and perhaps above all - a man who so frequently came up with simple solutions to complicated problems be they optical, electronic, mechanical, or whatever. He was truly a Renaissance Man - one who was skilled in many fields ranging from glass technology, to crystal oscillators, to the growing of exotic flowers, to mechanical design, etc.

Shortly after I started teaching as a very young, and very naive instructor of physics and mathematics at Clark University, I came to know of Dr. Tillyer. But it was not until after World War II that I began frequenting the AO just to talk with Dr. Tillyer about optical problems of mutual interest. In fact, I was so naive that it really never dawned on me just how fortunate he was to be allowed to take up so much of Doc's time whether it was at his office or so frequently at home. In time I cam to know "Doc" well and profited from his quick insight into problems (high-speed scanning radar antennas, for example) with which he had never worked. In time also, I came to know many of Doc's habits, such as crossing his legs and sitting on his heels when he was really excited about something.

One time a professor of hydraulic engineering at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute called and raised a question about the tremendous amount of light he needed to photograph the entry of a naval gun shell into the water. Suggesting that Doc might be able to offer advice, they went to Southbridge. As the W.P.I. professor described his problem, Doc said hardly anything but did get up, cross his legs, and sat on his heels. Finally the professor finished and Doc said, "I'm sorry, but I cannot help you. I don't think I have ever come across this problem before." At this remark, I said to the professor, "Don't believe him, he is not telling the truth!" The professor, knowing far better the significance of Doc's position at the AO, was quiet. He fully intended Doc to call for his secretary, then Bessie Kraly, and have me bodily thrown out of his office.

Instead, on hearing this comment, Doc grinned and said, "Well, maybe I do have something on the subject." He then went to a pile of reprints and articles, many of which he had written. Moving his finger down the pile about three feet, he pulled out a paper he had written on this very subject while he was at the National Bureau of Standards! Subsequent correspondence from the professor indicated that using Doc's optical system he had cut his lighting requirements by approximately a factor of 200. The crossing of his legs and sitting on his heels was a dead giveaway.

To more adequately portray Dr. Tillyer than just as seen, several friends of Doc's were contacted. They were asked if they would be willing to say a few words about Doc as they had seen him, not necessarily as he was perceived by the rest of the world. All willingly agreed and what follows is made possible by their care and respect for Doc.

Bess Hartley, Secretary

Bess Kraly, or Bessie as she was frequently known, then, and now Mrs. Baron Manning Hartley of Southborough, was kindness personified. It was only her understanding of Doc and his willingness to help others, perhaps particularly those interested in Optics, that prompted her to put telephone calls through even when he really was busy. Her recent letter speaks to this point.

Here are a few recollections about Doc. I worked for him directly between 1947-1954, and a few offices away until 1960.

"Doc was certainly a brilliant scientist with an impressive collection of patents - more than 150 as I recall.

"One might expect such a man to live in an ivory tower and perhaps be a bit eccentric. But Doc was neither isolated nor eccentric. He was quite definitely a "people" person and a very colorful one, to say the least. He was most interested in the lives of the people who worked for him and cared a lot about them and their families.

"During the time I worked for him, my mother became terminally ill and needed round-the-clock care. Doc encouraged me to work partime for as long as I needed in order to help care for her. He had become acquainted with her as a result of their mutual interest in growing flowers. One of his hobbies was growing tuberous begonias, and he was very successful at it. His plants produced spectacular blossoms which he delighted in bringing to the office.

"It's my feeling that he interacted very well with the administrative and non-technical personnel of the company - offering his time and his knowledge to anyone who needed it. He was highly regarded and respected both within and outside the company.

"Because he was so well-known in his field, Doc had frequent visitors from around the world. He was also active in the Optical Society of America.

"It was an unforgettable experience and a great privilege to have worked for such an extraordinary man.

"I chuckle sometimes when I recall that on the few occasions that I dared clear a space on his desk, he wouldn't speak to me for days. No matter how cluttered it was, he claimed, he always knew where everything was!"

Louis Rowe, Mathematician

Louis F. Rowe of Woodstock, formerly chief mathematician for the Research and Development Department at AO, knew Dr. Edgar D. Tillyer from a little different perspective than that of many of Doc's other co-workers.

While Doc was certainly no slouch in theoretical analysis, his real interest lay more in seeing to the heart of a problem and devising experiments to verify his theories. There were time, however, when very detailed analyses were required. The development of the "Green Block," referred to in the following excerpt from a letter by Rowe, is a case in point.

The Green Block is a special lens mold in which a disc of optical quality glass is "sagged" onto a surface that has been ground to the desired shape. The project for which Doc and his group developed the Green Block was a military one requiring a surface that could only be expressed by a very complicated mathematical equation. Rowe, thus came to work very closely with Doc.

"Although I started work in the lens plant at AO, my work soon brought me into contact with Doc Tillyer, Alex Pincus and Carl Silverberg. As long as I knew him, Doc nearly always wore a tweed suit with a four pocket vest (two at the top for pencil and pen and two at the bottom, like today's vests, for watch at the left and small change at the right). The first remarkable thing about Doc that I noticed was that he didn't carry just one pen and one pencil in his pockets. He carried pockets full.

"I soon learned that there were two reasons for this. First of all, Doc had to keep himself up to date. He investigated every new invention he could. Small things like new mechanical pencils, pens or penlight wound up in his vest pockets. Larger items were stashed around his office. The second reason was more practical. There were always one or more of us younger men in Doc's office or conference room to discuss new ideas or problems of mutual interest concerning our work, and the discussions could never proceed without pencil and paper. After these discussions, we were so preoccupied, we just picked up loose pencils and returned to our own quarters only to discover we each had at least one of Doc's new pencils. But Doc always had plenty of pens and pencils left so we could wait until the next time we met to return his property.

"During World War II when AO was called upon to mass produce aspheric lenses, meetings with Carl Silverberg, Alex Pincus and Doc became more frequent. These three perfected the famous green block, a ceramic of unusual dimensional stability to which hot glass would not stick. In the actual production of the aspherics, the teams became much larger and included the genius and skills of Jack Dalton, Larry Foote, Colin Yates and others.

"When Glass Science Inc. was established in Professor W. A. Wely's laboratories at Pennsylvania State College in 1944, Doc, Alex Pincus, Carl Silverberg and one or two more of us attended all of the semi-annual meetings. It was at these meetings that I first learned that there were scientific pursuits at which Doc did not excel. In the evenings after all-day meetings, we would gather in groups of eight or 10 at large round tables in the Rathskeller for the evening session which consisted of tenderloin steak sandwiches and a large pitcher of beer in the center of the table. Well, Doc just wasn't much of a beer drinker. He just didn't like the stuff.

"A few years after the war, I joined the research group and was in a short session with Doc almost every day until his death. I never ceased to be impressed by his genius and the breadth of his scientific knowledge. He always kept up to date. He followed the scientific literature religiously and he knew everything that was going on throughout the whole research organization.

"I took stock of our association after Doc passed on, and do you know - I never succeeded in keeping one of his mechanical pencils!"

Carl Silverberg, Chemist

With the advent of World War II, there came a tremendous increase in the demand for glass of high optical quality for use in cameras, telescopes, aerial photographic system, periscopes and binoculars. The flow of such glass from the German plants was, of course, abruptly terminated by the war.

One of the big problems, according to Carl G. Silverberg, a glass chemist then with the AO, was the annealing, the cooling of the glass. Traditionally, the optical glass was allowed to cool at its own natural rate until it reached room temperature. For very large pieces, this could take months, and months was time industry did not have.

Doc and his people, Carl Silverberg, Neill Brandt, Ward Collyer and others, initiated a system of speeding up the annealing tremendously - and without any sacrifice in optical quality. Basically, the technique was to establish by test a temperature difference between the center and the edge of a glass melt that would not produce excessive strain in the glass. Once the temperature difference was established, the glass could then be cooled relatively rapidly to room temperature.

Silverberg also indicated to this editor that another contribution of Doc's to glass technology at the AO was the establishment of an experimental glass melting lab to determine the types of glass best suited to the ophthalmic industry - even though at that time the AO bought most of its glass from the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co. As a result of the work in this lab, the company developed its own glass-producing capability enabling ophthalmic lenses to be poured directly from the glass when it was first made rather than having to remelt the solid glass they bought from Pittsburgh. A very considerable saving in time and money ensued.

Over and over, Silverberg emphasized, "Doc's strongest characteristic was to come up with simple solutions to complex problems."

Colin Yates, Master Lensmaker

As head of the precision optical shop in the research laboratory, Colin Yates was responsible for putting Doc's theoretical ideas and designs into prototype form.

It was a daily occurrence for Doc to visit Yate's Shop, inspect the work laid out on the bench, and ask what problems had arisen. Frequently Doc would say "Oh, remember that prism problem we talked about yesterday? Well I just got a 'wide idea,' why not try ..." Almost invariably when they tried out the "wild idea," it worked. Visiting Doc's office one time, Yates found papers indicating Doc had been up all night working on the problem. The secret of Doc's "wild ideas" was unmasked but Yates never let on he knew.

Just before World War II, the AO Research Lab made the first steel molds to press out the Polaroid film that would be used as a filter and sandwiched between two layers of glass. The polishing of these steel molds was very difficult as the modern sapphire polishing compound had yet to be invented. Doc, Yates, and the research lab chemists developed after many trials a special pitch that polished the steel beautifully. The composition of the compound was a closely guarded secret.

A certain foreign power, hearing of the success the AO had in polishing the steel molds requested a sample batch of the compound. Being very patriotic and concerned about the foreign power, Doc, according to Yates, conveniently "forgot" the first informed request. Doc, obviously upset, later came into Yate's Shop waving a formal request from our government that a sample batch of the compound be sent to the foreign power. Doc knew he had to comply. Suddenly he said "Colin you know that for every four batches of the compound we make, we only get one good one..." Yates understood immediately and a batch of the compound, one that they both knew would not work, was duly forwarded. When the foreign power claimed the compound would not work, Yates answered by saying they simply did not know how to do work of this caliber.

Donald Whitney, Physicist

It was Allan Jewell, a former student of this editor when he was at Clark University, who introduced Donald B. Whitney.  At that time they were both working for Doc Tillyer.  More about these two later, but first to Whitney.  When this editor called Whitney, told him that he was planning to devote a “Science and Health Care” page exclusively to Doc, and asked his help, he willingly agreed.  Whitney says:

“I first met Doc when I joined American Optical’s Research Laboratory in March, 1947.  For a young man of 22 it was an awesome experience, and I must confess that during the first few weeks I was reluctant to initiate any discussion on scientific matters.  As the weeks and months rolled on, however, I learned that Doc’s door was always open, and that no reasonable question would go unanswered.  Indeed, one of his principal legacies is the wealth of knowledge he so willingly imparted to those of us who were so much less experienced.

Doctor Tillyer was a true man of science.  His interest was genuine, and his breadth of knowledge was truly amazing.  Whether the subject of discussion was optics, glass technology, mechanics, electronics, or automotive engineering, Doc always seemed able to explain away the mysteries, and make a complicated scientific subject understandable.

Today at American Optical we are constantly reminded of the solid scientific foundation he laid during his long tenure with our company.  Not quite so well known is the fact that “Doc” began laying this foundation even before joining American Optical.  In our optical metrology laboratory is a set of highly valued master lenses, calibrated at the National Bureau of Standards.  It is by virtue of this master set of lenses, believed to be unique within the ophthalmic industry, that AO can be secure in the knowledge that its critical optical calibration measurements are traceable to the Bureau of Standards.  The NBS certificate of calibration accompanying these lenses bears the date “February 11, 1916,” and the familiar initials “EDT” – Dr. Edgar D. Tillyer, in charge of test.”

Incidentally, it was Jewell who related some years ago the following incident.  Shortly after Whitney and Jewell joined the AO to work with Dr. Edgar D. Tillyer, they became interested in high fidelity audio systems.  One noontime as they lunched in the lab, they became engrossed in an electronic circuit that one of them had designed.  Time went by and they suddenly realized that their lunch hour had long since ended and they had better get back to their lens work or else Doc might give them hell.  Then they looked up and there was Doc looking over their shoulders at the circuit.  He gave them hell all right – for designing such a poor circuit!  He then sat down between them and spent the rest of the afternoon showing them how to do it right!

Again and again, we see this characteristic of Doc coming out.  We will all remember him for it.

Esther Thorburn, Secretary

It is often said that men are known best by their secretaries – at least insofar as working habits go.  The following excerpt from a letter by Esther Barnes of Sturbridge (now Thorburn) illustrates the multifaceted man we have come to know as “Doc” Tillyer.

“Esther Barnes Thorburn went to work at AO for Doc Tillyer in 1929, being transferred from
Manufacturers & Merchants Association located on Main Street in Southbridge.  Royal
Parkenson was instrumental in making the change for me.

“For six months or more I was sorry for the move as Doc was very temperamental and difficult
to work for.  I almost quit several times.  One day, first thing in the morning, I had a call from
Norman Price requesting that I make Doc answer a letter from him, which should have been
answered three weeks before.  He said to tell him it absolutely, positively had to be answered
that day.  When Doc came in I said, ‘Doc, the first thing I want you to do is answer a letter sent
to you by Norman Price three weeks ago.’  He flew into a rage and said, ‘no secretary of mine
is going to tell me what to do,’ and he grabbed a pile of correspondence from my desk and
threw it all over the floor.  At that point I was infuriated too.  I put on my coat and walked out,
leaving the mess on the floor.  I went home to Sturbridge and told my parents what happened.
They didn’t have too much sympathy for me and said, ‘Simmer down, eat a good lunch, and go
back to work at 1 o’clock.  There has never been a Barnes in Sturbridge that was a quitter and
you are not going to be the first.’

I went back to work and by that time the floor was clean and everything back in order.  Doc came in at 1:15 as big as life and said, ‘Hello, Esther, I want to talk to you.’  He took off his coat and hat, and perched himself in a squatting position on top of my desk.  He said, ‘I have been looking at new Buicks and I want to take you up to the agency and get a first-class opinion.”  He went, and bought a new Buick.

From that day on Doc and I were bosom pals and for the next 10 years it was a pleasure and privilege to work for such a genius.”

Dr. M. DiBonaventura, Optical Industralist

As a young boy attending the technical high school in Southbridge, Dr. M. DiBonaventura was interested in photography.  There was at that time an amateur photographers club and, on occasion, Dr. Tillyer would speak on photography or astronomy.

Having been an astronomical observer at the Naval Observatory early in his career, Doc was well qualified to speak on these subjects.  His enthusiasm was so contagious he inspired DiBonaventura to an interest in optics.

Receiving a doctor of optometry degree was not enough for DiBonaventura, but still inspired by Doc Tillyer, he went on to take advanced courses in optics.  He became a member of the Boston University Optical Research Laboratory and, later left to form with several colleagues, the well-known firm of Diffraction Limited.

Recently, Dr. DiBonaventura, now a resident of Sturbridge, commented on Doc as follows:

“He was a man of great optical talent, always ready to share his knowledge with people at any level.  It was a pleasure to have met him at meetings of photographic enthusiasts.

“His willingness to answer questions about optics, astronomy, and photography and to take time to explain these subjects so that they were understood and made interesting is what inspired me to make the field of optics my career.”

John K. Davis, Lens Designer

One might say that John Davis "lucked into" working with Doc Tillyer. Working in Florida, he came home to visit his parents in Webster and found out that AO was looking for someone to work as an understudy for Dr. A. Estelle Glancy. Dr. Glancy was Doc Tillyer's right hand person in matters pertaining to lens design for many, many years and was certainly distinguished in her own right.

When asked how he remembered Doc Tillyer, Davis answered,

"How do I remember Dr. Tillyer: I remember him as an affectionate, patient man anxious to help those around him. What comes to mind is the phrase "Now Johnny, let me show you something.' Then on a scratch pad, a remarkable simplification of a complex formula would flow across the paper. Answers to questions handy in a meeting or after a lecture could be done in your head. I still use some of those tricks he taught me 40 years ago.

"The basic concept of his spectacle lens series with variations is used today by lens designers the world over. It was simple and once presented was seen as an obvious practical solution to well-designed mass-produced lenses. Details and goals change, but not the basic point of view.

"His patents were well-developed lessons in optics, easy to read and understand. He always saw the forest as well as the trees. He published few papers. His correspondence remained piled high while he sat helping young engineers work out problems on his scratch pad. This was his joy, and the joy of those with whom he shared his perceptiveness and insight."

Editor's Comment:

Davis has cited Dr. Tillyer's ability to simplify lens design problems. A specific example of this occurred during World War I. A particular telescopic gunsight was made in France but most American manufacturers said it was impossible to do in the United States. The reason was that at that time we did not have a domestic supply of "barium glass" - a special glass the French used. Within a few days of hearing of the problems, Dr. Tillyer redesigned the sight so that it could be mass-produced with a common type of domestically available ophthalmic glass. Not only did Doc's design enable the United States to build the telescopic sight here, but the French acknowledged that it was better than their own!

None of the contributors to this page saw or knew what the other contributors said about Dr. Edgar D. Tillyer. Yet even though seen by different eyes and from different points of view, his dominant characteristics as seen by all were clearly:

- a major concern for others, be they young instructors, budding optical engineers, secretaries, or flower growers.

- an amazing ability to take the complicated and put it in simple terms.

- an unpretentiousness that showed itself in his preference for an old grey hat and an equally conservative automobile.

- a worldwide respect by experts in his own field of optics and electronics.

We do and will miss the quiet man who lived the last 55 years of his 89-year life on a quiet street near the center of town. People such as Edgar D. Tillyer greatly enrich the lives of those they touch and too frequently this fact is not recognized until it is too late to thank them personally.

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