AO Ophthalmic Lens History


1908 Jena, Germany Photo showing George Wells (4th from the right).
This was the home of Zeiss, a company impacted by the Tarriffs as described in the article below.

Names of people in above photo
(All photos courtesy of the Optical Heritage Museum)

 Article Taken from

The WELLS Family

Privately Printed in 1979

Whatever pressures George W. may have exerted were in his opinion obviously justified. Who could compare a few years in college with the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of an establishment the potentials of which staggered the imagination? Who, too, were better trained in the work-duty ethic, in the concept of all for one and one for all, than his own three sons? Even more significantly, the job was growing much too big for one man to handle - even George W.

Supervisory people for the more than 800 workers in the plant were needed. Of course, there were a few trusted aides like Cook, whose death was a massive loss. But for George W., complete trust could be given and received only by his own family.

As was his nature, George’s stature quickly grew as the company’s interest broadened. Traveling on company business, he soon learned to know his customers - mostly on a first name basis. They gave him their respect - if not always their affection. He traveled schedules that today, even with air travel, would seem exhausting.

The money game had lost none of its fascination, but now the stakes were far higher than the raising of a few hundred dollars to pay for some stock. With his own plant pretty well in order, George W. began the slow and steady acquisition of other companies throughout the market area to build better and more dependable distribution. There were daily challenges which excited him, but which demanded a great deal of his physical stamina.

Finally, his ascendancy in the industry thrust him willy-nilly into the international field. Prior to 1884, American Optical had been primarily involved with making frames for glasses - and finishing them with lenses imported from Europe. there was an economic reason if not necessarily a health reason for so doing. Lenses made by “men, women and children... often in their own homes,” primarily in Switzerland, were sold to distributors in Paris for “a dollar and sixty cents a gross...”

Quality was variable. It bothered the man who, while living over the blacksmith shop on Elm Street, had made a pledge: “We shall spare no pains until every person who needs them shall have glasses of true scientific merit.”

Peasant-made lenses were in no way the answer. As a result, American Optical and Bausch and Lomb in upper New York State began to import unfinished lenses and finish them in their own plants under tighter control. The change delivered not only a better product, but also a greater ability to compete, since unfinished glass was supposedly on the free list of imports.

George W. did not take kindly to it when in that same year his company was slapped with custom bills from Washington for “four hundred and fifty dollars on every thousand dollars worth of glass imported since it had started to grind lens.

“He got in touch with Bausch & Lomb. They had received a similar notification from Washington, and on October 26, Henry Lomb and George Wells went to Washington for a hearing before G. C. Tichnor, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury.

“There the trouble came to light. To the Treasury Department, lens finished or unfinished were one. For some time, a Philadelphia concern had been importing finished lens duty free, and a clerk in the department had uncovered the fact that there was forty-five percent ad valorem duty on these according to an act of 1883. He did note that raw lens were admitted free. therefore, the Department looked up all shipments of imported lens and sent notices to all importers.

“Lomb and George Wells argued loud and long, but three months of the busiest season of the year went by before they received a favorable decision...”

George thereby found himself catapulted into the international scene - and into the national political scene. In 1888 when Benjamin Harrison, Republican, advocate of higher tariffs, was elected... “Southbridge and the American Optical Company were jubilant. On the night of November 15, there was a monster celebration and the largest torch-light parade ever seen in town... George Wells, A. M. Cheney and Henry Cady led the American Optical section followed by the American Optical band, a light infantry battalion of eighty-five American Optical employees and scores of bobbing torch-lights and signs...”

What had happened was vitally significant to Southbridge and the future of the town as the optical products capital of the world.

“In 1883, 90% of the lens used in the United States were imported; five years later, American manufacturers were able to supply the whole country from 10 to 25% less than the cost of the imported lens. In 1887, American Optical Company made a million and a half pairs of spectacles, used $248,000 worth of gold and silver, and employed 400 people; give years later it turned out over two million pairs of spectacles and eyeglasses, over three million pairs of lens, used $559,110 worth of gold and silver and employed 800 people... In 1889, the company made three-fourths of the gold spectacles used in the United States and one-third of the 4,500,000 spectacles of all kinds used that year.”

1907 Soutrhbridge Photo showing AO, Bausch and Lomb and Zeiss Co. Member (George Wells  at center)

1907 Rochester NY Photo (home of Bausch and Lomb showing AO, Bausch and Lomb and Zeiss Co. Member (George Wells  at center)
George Wells seated at the Front right

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