Don Whitney - Recalling his early days at American Optical

American Optical

"Having majored in Astronomy, a logical occupation for me would be something related to optics. I sent applications to Eastman Kodak, Bausch & Lomb, and American Optical, and was interviewed by all three firms. Kodak had nothing to offer me at the time, B & L made me a tentative offer, but AO made me a firm offer. Jan and I made the trip to Southbridge together, and I remember we were a bit less than impressed with the approach to town along Worcester Street. However, with a job offer in hand, we decided this would be a good place for me to start.

The Company arranged for me to rent a room at the Baybut house on Elm Street, and I rented a garage on Williams Street, just a short walk from the house. My first day at AO was on Monday, March 30, 1947. After a brief welcome interview with Byron Ziegler, I was turned over to John Davis, who would be my boss. They had set up a desk for me toward the back of a room used by Dr. Edgar D. Tillyer, Director of Research, as an optical laboratory. I had an office-mate, Marcel Benjamin, who soon became a close friend.

My job was titled Apprentice Lens Designer, and involved trigonometric computations which would be done using logarithms or a mechanical calculator. It represented a challenge because it involved ophthalmic optics, whereas what little optical training I had was in classical optics. There is quite a difference. I was fortunate, though, in having fine teachers including my boss, John, Henry Fernald, a coworker, and even Dr. Tillyer.

I started work Monday and continued on Tuesday. Just before midnight on Tuesday, I became violently ill, and began vomiting. I knew from experience that such things hit me hard, so I headed for the car and drove the sixty five mile trip back to Newton in little more than an hour and a quarter, including stops to throw up. Mother sent for the doctor on Wednesday morning, and he gave me an injection which put me out long enough to interrupt the spells of vomiting. I finished recovering on Thursday, and was back at AO on Friday. Not an auspicious way to start a new job, but at least I made it back to work in a couple of days. The doctor blamed the episode on a piece of Boston Cream Pie I had eaten for supper at a local restaurant. Cream fillings, it seems, are a good breeding ground for the grippe bug.

I liked my work at AO from day one, and found my associates to be not only helpful but good company. As it turns out, I had made a fortunate decision to join AO's Research Department. It is a move I have never regretted..

With just a few weeks to my upcoming wedding, where we would live became a burning issue. Being so soon after the end of World War II, housing was scarce. However, we had a lucky break in that one of Jan's close friends grew up in Spencer, and her family knew of a furnished apartment which was available for the months of July and August. That took a little of the pressure off, and we settled for the apartment.

On Friday afternoon, June 20, I left work a bit early to start the weekend of my wedding. I remember, as I went out the North Street Gate at AO, the guard stopped me and asked where I was going. I replied that I was off to get married. His response, which I will never forget, was, "Why, you're just a child!"

...Meanwhile, things at work were going well. I had been at AO for about a year, and, among other things, had assumed responsibility for the calculation of special prescriptions. AO had several hundred prescription laboratories located across the country. When these laboratories received a specially complicated prescription, for they lacked the knowhow or the equipment to fabricate, such prescriptions were sent to the Special Prescription Laboratory in Southbridge. When these problem prescriptions required special calculations, beyond the capability of Special Prescription Laboratory personnel, they were referred to the Research laboratory and to me. Because there were often sales considerations regarding how or if the prescription would be accepted, I would meet every afternoon with Ben Greene, from Lens Sales, and we would review the ramifications of each of these unusual prescriptions. It is amazing the amount of time and effort that went into trying to help patients with unusual visual problems. This was certainly not a money making aspect of the business.

Most of my time at AO, during this period, was spent performing lens design computations, using a mechanical calculator, or sometimes just logarithms. I worked not only on spectacle lens design, but also on a wide range of optical problems ranging from simple camera lenses to Schmidt corrector-plates for projection television. I became involved in not only the design of these items but also in performing laboratory measurements. It was enjoyable work, and provided a marvelous training ground. The whole experience was made was made special by the fine group of people with whom I was working."

Other Excerpts:
Notes from Don's father
Being sent to Camp
Oak Bluffs, Martha's Vineyard
Glenn Miller
Asbury Park
Harvard Days / Remembering Jack Lemmon
The Totem Pole
Engagement to Jan
Starting at AO as an Apprentice Lens Designer
Why Dick was once named David



Full Autobiography:
Download Complete Autobiography (Zip file of 360 k, in PDF format)

Dads Travel bag and AO Lens Design Toric Training tools

Dad demonstrating Princc Ruperts drop glass properites - New May 12, 2010

Updated on May 12, 2009

Dad's Ophthalmic Lens documents

AO and Ophthalmic Lens Design

Browse to: AO History Information

Return to Whitney Home Page