(First of  a Series)
Coming to Work for American Optical- Circa 1945

Robert Haynes

In 1945 the AO was not only a company, it was a culture. The culture was reflected not only within the company, but throughout the town of Southbridge and beyond, and, to some extent, the ophthalmic industry. It was provincial and parochial. The AO was an institution. You could see this in the advertisements it placed in such distinguished magazines as National Geographic- full page ads- which discussed the importance of protecting vision, but never a word about products, only the name and logo at the bottom of the page. It said for all the world "We are American Optical. Our only interest in being is the advancement of good vision practices. "

AO had a reputation throughout New England as a good place to work. During the great economic depression of 1929-1937, Southbridge was known as the town which never felt the depression. I'm sure this wasn't strictly true, but policies put in place by the Wells family which owned the company, and expressed in "The American Plan", a booklet given to all employees, defined in detail the company's employment practices. Many of these would probably be illegal today. As an example, lay-off policy was as follows: children of employees still living at home would be laid off first. Wives of employees would then be laid off. The purpose was to maintain one working head of household in each family. This was in keeping with the economic times and the Southbridge culture, which was very family oriented. One went to work with the AO for life. Organizations like the Quarter Century Club were designed to instill this concept. The company thus maintained a stable work force, with unmatched loyalty to the company.

I was not in the military during WW2, as I had been judged 4F, (unfit for combat), because of a heart murmer. I had just completed two years at Brown University, when I was recruited by the Navy Department, Bureau of Ships, because of my amateur radio license. I was subsequently sent to a Navy School in Philadelphia where I was trained as a Radio Inspector. Ultimately I was sent to East Springfield, Massachusetts to work at the Westinghouse Electric Plant.The job involved inspection and checking communications equipment used by the Navy and manufactured at the plant. When the war ended, I decided it was time to look for work elsewhere, rather than take my chances with government employment. My father's boss had a friend at AO named Perse Burnheim, who was Director of Research and Development at AO. He wrote to him describing this young man, me.

I went for an interview. One entered the Personnel Department through an entrance marked "Personnel" in the Main Plant. Guarding the entrance, from a window of his office was Seaver Rice. I announced myself, and was ushered into an office where I was interviewed, and filled out an employee application form. I was then taken up to the third floor, where I met Mr. Bernheim for the first time.

After a brief interview, I was offered a job as Technical Secretary to the Research Department. It was a new position for which I was probably totally unqualified. In this position I would work directly for Mr. Bernheim. I didn't have the slightest idea what my duties would be, and I doubt if Mr. Bernheim knew either. But I had a job, and that was the important thing. I was a product of the depression, and just having a job was an accomplishment, in my mind.

The Research Department, Department AL, was on the third floor of the Main Plant, the red brick building on Mechanics Street, dominated by an imposing clock tower. .The offices were wood paneled, and each executive office possessed an antique clock, for most of the clock collection of J. Cheney Wells was housed in the offices of American Optical, and maintained by Mr. William Porter. More of him later.

I was given a desk just outside of the office of Mr. Bernheim, alongside his secretary, a very pleasant and helpful lady, Annette Pinsonault. My job, it developed, was to write technical reports for Mr. Bernheim, to attend meetings, take notes and write the minutes

I found out, as time went on, that I had virtually nothing to do. I wrote a few reports as required, and had plenty of time to get acquainted with the interesting people who worked at American Optical and particularly in the Research Department. It was a wonderful opportunity to learn about the eyeglass business. Because of my writing job, I soon became familiar with the optical lingo. I won't say I always understood it, but I learned how to use it and spell the words correctly.

I remember the first time I had occasion to visit Doctor Tillyer in his office. I believe I had some kind of report to write which required input from him. I stood in his doorway waiting to be acknowledged. He looked up from his reading, he was always reading something, and waved to me to come in and sit down. I sat down, and he began to tell me about what he was reading. This was one of many times after that first contact that I sat and talked with him. I soon found out about his interest in "electronics", which was the buzz word. We talked about his work with the old General Radio Company in the field of accurate frequency control using piezo-electric crystals. He told me at length about his days at the Bureau of Standards. I found these get togethers stimulating. I couldn't believe that this man, who was an icon at AO, would share these things with a kid like me.
Dr. Tillyer was always called Doc. Almost anytime you walked by his office you would see him reading some scientific journal, making notes on the margins. He would sometimes be seen in conversation with his long time friend and associate Judge Still from the Legal Department. He had handled Doc's patents for many years. Doc had produced a lot of patents, many of course, in optics, but many in other fields, including electronics.
Doc's years at the U. S. Bureau of Standards must have influenced him greatly. He was very interested in precise time measurement. AO used minute stepping clocks, which were then standard in large facilities. Each office had one They were connected electrically to a master clock, which sent an electrical signal each minute, which caused the minute hand of each clock to step ahead one minute. Assuming the clocks were properly set initially, the indicated time was exactly that of the master clock. The master clock was an accurate pendulum clock to which each “slave” clock was electrically connected. Doc was concerned that the master clock was not set properly, and that "AO time" might be as much as a minute or two different from the exact time. One of the few ways that you could find out what the exact time actually was, was from WWV, the Bureau of Standards Radio Station, then located in Washington. This was broadcast on shortwave 24 hours a day. Doc purchased a shortwave radio and had it installed next to the master clock. He designed and had the Electrical Department install a receiving antenna for it. He then required the custodian of the clocks, at that time I believe it was an electrician, Earl Davis, to check the master clock against WWV each morning, and make sure that it was adjusted so that the AO time was precise. Thus you could set your watch by the AO clocks from then on, and know that you were in sync with the Bureau of Standards.
The chief custodian of the antique clockswas the instrument maker for the laboratory, Mr. William Porter. Already advanced in years when I first met him in 1945, or at least he did to me at 25, he continued on in this position for some time. When he did finally retire from the AO, he was hired by the Wells Family to oversee the clocks in the J. Cheney Wells collection at Old Sturbridge Village. This was after the vintage clocks, scattered all over AO, were collected and relocated in the school house building at Old Sturbridge. However, at this time he was the authority on old clocks, and he and Doc spent many hours together discussing, I suppose, time.
Mr. Porter was a very fussy man. He was an excellent machinist of laboratory equipment. He has the title of Laboratory Instrument Maker. One could imagine him working for Thomas Edison and building the first phonograph! His workshop was small and cramped. It was dominated in the center of the floor space by a precision watch-maker's lathe. Usually you would see Bill leaning over the lathe machining some part or other. If he was not doing that, he was repairing watches for executives of AO. You must recall that the digital quartz watch had not even been thought of at this time, and all watches were mechanical He usually had three or four watches on his arm, which he was adjusting after cleaning. He cleaned watches by completely disassembling them, and placing the individual parts in a glass laboratory beaker filled with a solvent. He decried the process, which had come into vogue among watchmakers, of cleaning watches by merely placing the assembled works in a dish of solvent. After cleaning them in this way, he carefully examined each piece as he reassembled the timepiece. If any part was unduly worn, he would order a replacement part. After that, he would proceed to adjust the watch. He did this by accurately setting the watch, wearing it on his arm for a day, and then determining how much time had been gained or lost. He then made an adjustment and wore it for another day, and readjusting it if necessary, until it met his criteria for accuracy This was all done on company time, but, at that time, AO was privately owned by the Wells Family, and many of the watches being worked on were theirs, and Bill Porter had become their private watchmaker..
Doc's obsession with time was also evidenced by the two telechron electric clocks located side by side on the wall in Mr. Porter's laboratory. To understand why, you must understand the AO power system at that time. The AO Plants were supplied with electric power from steam turbines which drove AC generators located in the Power Plant. The frequency, nominally 60 cycles per second, was determined by the speed of rotation of these generators. When the power plant was built, the frequency of the electric power could vary significantly without causing any difficulty. With the advent of the electric clock, the time accuracy of which was determined by the accuracy of the frequency of the electric power supplying it, frequency became important, if you wanted to use electric clocks. Doc decided to monitor the power house.

A special power line was run into Mr. Porter's lab from the electric company. One of the clocks was plugged into the power company line, the other was attached to the power house line. By setting both clocks accurately, one could see how the power house frequency varied from hour to hour, day to day. Doc communicated the resulting data to the power house, and soon, they too installed two clocks, side by side. The engineer in charge watched the clocks, and would speed up or slow down the turbines to maintain a somewhat accurate frequency, at least over time. Now one could use an electric clock at the AO with reasonable certainty that it would be correct.

When one thinks of a research laboratory these days, the image is of a spit and polish operation, with gleaming equipment and state of the art display panels. This mental picture does not fit the AO Research Department of the 1940's. The building was old, having been built sometime in the late 1800's. The offices of Mr. Bernheim, Doctor Tillyer and Mr. Harold Moulton, the Assistant Director of Research, were classic wooden paneled offices of that period. Across from Doc's office was the Research Library, which was also wooden paneled, as was Dr. Estelle Glancy's small cubbyhole of an office, and , I believe, the Optics Laboratory.

Beyond that were a series of rooms off a central corridor, with several twists and turns. Many of the rooms had old wooden work benches, others had, for the most part, equally old and well-used wooden desks. This was the pre-digital age, so instrument read-outs were galvanometers and panel meters. There were refractometers and other types of vintage optical instruments, all well used. The third floor, where the laboratory was located, was the top floor of the building. The ceilings were uninsulated consisting of wooden panels which had been painted white at one time, years ago, and, on hot summer days, tar from the roof would frequently drip in long strands through the joints.. Needless to say, there was no air-conditioning. Open windows were the norm in hot weather. During dry spells sand and dust covered your desk. On humid days, and anyone who has lived in Southbridge knows that there were many of these in the summer, paper ceased to crackle, but became limp. If your arm was bare and you rested it on a memo, it would stick to your skin. Ah, the good old days.

1947 "AO" Picnic at Byron Zeiglers

It was at this Picnic that Mom was introduced by Dad to the Hayneses,
thus starting a lifelong friendship between the families!
(Don Whitney Photo)

Planned Future Chapters

Applied Research-Department B2B under Byron Ziegler

·The Flood

·The Frame Plant in 1956

·The Frederick Plant





·End of an era.

Return to AO History Recollections Page