Optical Pioneers

George Washington Wells: Forging success through steel

Optical Pioneers
George Washington Wells
Forging success through steel
By Joseph L. Bruneni

American Optical has always dated its birth to 1833, though the company started in 1826 when William Beecher opened the Beecher Jewelry Shop in Southbridge, Mass.

Beecher added optical goods in 1833, and the spectacles he sold were the first made in Southbridge, a town with a population of 1,600. In 1840, Beecher produced the first spectacles ever made of steel in the United States, starting a trend for steel frames that lasted for 60 years. The company went through several mergers and eventually ended up as R. H. Cole & Company.

This photograph showing John Jacob Bausch (left) and George Washington Wells was taken
during a 1908 meeting of B&L and AO top executives 

Apprentice George Washington Wells joined the firm in 1864, and within three years he was designing and improving machinery used for manufacturing metal frames. Wells left, but was enticed back and the company again benefited from his technical expertise. With Wells back, the merged companies incorporated under the impressive name of American Optical Company.

The company opened branches in London (1905), in Chicago (1909), in New York (1910), and in San Francisco (1911). Between 1900 and 1910, an enormous new plant was constructed in Southbridge, which was only recently torn down.


A century ago, a shortage of lenses coming from Europe was choking the infant U.S. optical industry. At the time, optical glass came from England. It was made in Sheffield, ground in Birmingham, and shipped to the U.S. Wells was unhappy with the lens quality--focus numbers were widely inaccurate (lenses were categorized then by a number, not by foci). But, no one in the U.S. knew how to manufacture lenses.

Then, Wells found an immigrant family grinding lenses in their farmhouse and offered their son, Charlie Wilson, a job installing lens-making equipment in Southbridge.

At this time, lenses were biconvex or biconcave (basically flat) and spherical in power. American Optical produced its first lenses using wooden machinery on Jan. 18, 1884.

That fall, Wells scrapped the wooden equipment and remade it in iron, the first iron lens-making machines in the world. In 1893, the company added cylinder compound lenses to its production. In 1900, the firm began producing periscopic or meniscus lenses that had concave and convex surfaces designed to replace primitive flat lenses.


When R. H. Cole retired in 1891, Wells became president of AO. Gradually, the Wells family became major stockholders of American Optical. George Wells turned over responsibility for operations to his three sons in 1906, but supervised the company's management until his death in 1912 at age 66.

The optical industry was controlled for many years by American Optical and Bausch & Lomb and a personal friendship sprung up between the Wells and Bausch families, although their companies were fierce competitors. A follow-the-leader relationship eventually developed, with Bausch & Lomb sometimes following policies determined by AO. Under the management of Wells' three sons, American Optical grew, and by the 1920s, the company controlled more than 40 percent of the optical industry.



George Wells had a flair for organization and administration and became a master builder in the fledgling days of the U.S. optical industry. By the time he died in 1912, the company under his administration had introduced a number of industry "firsts."

1874 Rimless spectacles
1883 Lens plant
1884 Trial frames
1889 Oculist trial cases
1891 Automatic lens edgers
1891 Gold-filled spectacles
1894 Company catalog
1895 Eyeglass chains
1897 Eyeglass cases
1898 Standardized trial lens sets
1900 Toric lenses (produced in U.S.)