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Reflecting on AO’s History -
A personal account Rev 25-Jan-12

My mother (Jan), me as a 3 year old, and my sister Sue greet Dad (who took the photo) as he got out of work at AO in the Fall of 1954.
The buliding behind use is the former Main Plant, now the new Southbridge Hotel and Conference Center.

Dick Whitney - American Optical, Southbridge, Ma

It must be old age setting in, for I find myself interested in my past. Since I grew up and have lived most of my life in the town where American Optical was founded, I am naturally interested in the subject of AO’s History. Learning about the roots and history of American Optical is transforming from a casual interest to a serious hobby. In Sept of 2012, I expect to celebrate my 38th Anniversary with American Optical (now Carl Zeiss Vision) . I started in the Central Testing Laboratory where I learned physical and optical test procedures, which was a great learning experience.

In Dec 2006, I moved offices from the Lens Plant (2L later named building 50) to a new location on 368 Main St. Prior to the move, the photo below was taken of my at the same spot where I had my original desk. The astronomy photos that Dad and I took and developed remained where I had put them for all of those years! I now (2007) work for Carl Zeiss Vision, as American Optical Ophthalmic lens division was merged with Zeiss, SOLA and AO.

In the Central Test Lab (my first job at AO).
Photo on the left taken around 1974 (when I started), and again in 2001.
I haven't changed too much have I?

Personal Background

I was born in Southbridge, Mass. which is the town that American Optical was founded in 1833. My father, Donald Whitney, joined American Optical in 1947 and began his lifetime career in Ophthalmic Optics. He settled in town a short time later, and I was born at the local hospital in 1951. During my growing up years, AO and Southbridge were synonymous. I lived hearing about AO and the events of the time.

As a child I took pride in the fact that the worlds largest ophthalmic lens manufacturer was in my hometown. Most all of us took its’ presence for granted, until it began to be broken up and the manufacturing base closed down. When I first joined the company the Southbridge AO Complex employed nearly 5500 people and 11,000 worldwide. While today the complex  still houses several businesses and has a world class hotel and business center, AO’s local presence is no longer monolithic force in the town. We do however, continue to have pride in the contributions of American Optical.

SOLA and AO (First contact?)

My exposure to SOLA (the company which now owns AO) was not recent, but in fact occurred in the early 1960’s. At that time, Noel Roscrow paid several visits to Southbridge and met with my father during his stays. SOLA, the Scientific Optical Laboratory of Australia was in its infancy at that time. Noel was traveling the world leaning all he could about CR-39 and making numerous contacts. My father managed the AOLITE plastic lens casting operation at that time, and therefore was one of his contacts. Noel came to my house and I remember showing him my shell collection, and he added a special Australian shell to my collection which I still have today. I also became pen pals with a boy in Beaumaris, Australia through Noel, and remember learning about Australia at that time.

In September 1999 I contacted Noel after more than 35 years of being out of touch. He was soon to depart on an extended travel around the world. Upon his return, we continued to correspond and he provided a summary of SOLA's History which is on my Recollections Page. I was saddened to learn that Noel passed away in  2011.

 In 2006 AO and Sola merged with Zeiss Ophthalmic lens and is now Carl Zeiss Vision.

The AO Museum - A choice between vacationing in Hawaii or traveling to Southbridge?

While presently much of the collection is in storage, the Optical Heritage Museum is very active and I expect 2012 to bring new announcements on its progress so stay tuned. Many displays of the Museum collection have been shared including a full display of AO's Lensometers.

To see some of AO's contrutions to the industry go to http://www.dickwhitney.net/AOFirsts.htm
In July of 1999, I was again reminded that my surroundings that I take for granted are of great interest to others. A California couple who collects old spectacles contacted me. They wanted to visit AO and the Museum. At that time, it was no longer open to the public but I arranged to show them the collection.

In mid-August of 1999, their "dream" came true. I learned that they had a choice of visiting AO & Southbridge or to vacation in Hawaii. They elected to see AO! Photos taken the day they toured the Museum are in the Web Site. Their visit was an eye opener for me, as the enthusiasm that they both showed made my take a closer look at the History that surrounds me.

Todd AO Contacts-

Another contact that I experienced in 1996, led to a journey by a group from Denmark to Southbridge. Thomas Hauerslev (Editor of The International Newsletter About 70mm Film) led this "expedition" which occurred in May of 1997. They visited with several who were involved in the 1950’s Todd-AO wide screen process developed in Southbridge.

I learned much about this unprecedented project, which involved developing a new process for both picture and sound. The projection screen process involved a wide screen projection of an image, which on film was intentionally distorted. When this curved image was projected down to the screen angled below the projector, the resulting image would be wide and undistorted. The first film, which debuted the process developed at AO, was Oklahoma. It is to this day a classic in the History of American Film. Visit the Todd – AO web section to learn more.

Those in the generations before us laid the foundation of what AO is today. Examples of accomplishments pioneered at AO include work with Heart Pacemakers, early Projection TV, Non-Contact Tonometry, Fiber Optics, Corrected Curve Ophthalmic Lenses, etc. One does have the realization that the reason AO has the world name recognition today, is in large part do to the extraordinary growth and diversity which got its start in the little Spectacle Shop started by William Beecher and energized by George Wells in the 1800’s.

In closing, I am often asked what made the company great. An appropriate quote comes to mind which I found in the AO News Published shortly after the Flood of 1955, when the President of AO at the time stated:

“We have always said that American Optical Company’s greatest asset was its people. We have lost other assets. And the only thing that could make us face the future with increased confidence was the spirit and accomplishments of all of you.”

The ophthalmic lens business of American Optical was purchased by SOLA in 1996. In 2005, AO Sola was merged with the Opthalmic lens business of Zeiss.
On May 12, 2006, the Company legally became Carl Zeiss Vision. On that day, new company signs were posted at all CZV sites in the US, including Southbridge.
The color photo taken in Dec 2006 (above) was shortly before the Building was closed and I moved my office to a new location in the center of Southbridge.

Sept 16, 2009 marks my 35th year of continuous service! Hard to believe and can't believe it has been that long!

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