Thursday, November 30, 2017

American Made: The Story of Buffalo's contribution to the first All American Research Telescope

By Matthew Shoen

Associate Architectural Historian at Preservation Studios

American Made is one of the phrases many people latch onto with pride. Those two words helped fuel the financial stability and economic growth my parents remember and they instilled in people a sense of possibility. There was a time however when certain products were impossible to produce in America. In the early twentieth century many technological processes were controlled by European scientists and firms that ferociously guarded their patents and scientific innovations. One under appreciated but significant product Americans could only get from Europe was optical glass. Optical glass is a special type of glass utilized in microscopes, telescopes, binoculars, and other specialized lenses. During the early twentieth century most of the world's optical glass was produced in German and optics firms like Bausch and Lomb had to go through European intermediaries in order to make their products.

This situation changed after drastically 1914 and the onset of World War I. With American optical firms cut off from their European glass suppliers, they began to experiment with optical glass production. At the same time, the Wilson administration started to grow acutely worried about America's limited supply of optical glass. Unlike nineteenth century artillery that was sited with rudimentary instruments and by eyeballing a target, the artillery pieces of World War I required advanced targeting and fire control mechanisms. Naval vessels were particularly vulnerable without quality optical sights, the days of broadsiding enemy ships from a few hundred yards away having been put to bed. America needed to become self sufficient in the event the Great War pulled the country in. With this in mind, scientists from the Geophysics Library of the Carnegie Institute and three optical firms:   Bausch & Lomb of Rochester, the Pittsburg Plate Glass Company of Pittsburg, and the Spencer Lens Company from Buffalo came together to produce the first American made optical glass. Today we will be focusing on the Spencer Lens Company, their contributions to early optical glass manufacturing, and their application of optical glass manufacturing techniques to one crucial civilian project.

The Spencer Lens Company was one of the earliest microscope manufacturers in America. Charles Spencer founded the company in 1852 in Canisteo, New York, and in 1895 the firm incorporated in Buffalo with Spencer’s son, Herbert, and Dr. Roswell Park as chief officers. Park’s influence and position as a Professor of Surgery at the University at Buffalo helped sustain the company during the early 1900s and Park promoted the company’s optical devices to laboratories, hospitals, and schools.

After the Spencer Lens Company lost its German optical glass suppliers in 1914, the company estimated its optical glass supply would only until 1916. Afraid of losing its business, the company started to research optical glass production and in 1916, built a large glass production factory in Hamburg. Located away from the smoke and grime of downtown Buffalo, the factory experimented with producing different types of optical glass. Despite setbacks and a number of technical challenges, the firm was producing high quality optical glass by the time America entered World War I. 

During the war, the Spencer Lens Company produced roughly 75,000 pounds of optical glass,  around twelve percent of the country’s wartime glass production. The company sold much of its glass to Bausch & Lomb and the Pittsburg Plate Glass Company, where it was used to make range finding instruments and other supplies for the American Expeditionary Forces. 

Spencer Lens Company Plant in Hamburg L.M. Potter, “Optical Glass Manufacture in America,” School Science and Mathematics 19, no. 1 (1919): 181.  

The Spencer Lens Company's ability to manufacture optical glass opened a brand new avenue of business for the company. The company started producing lenses of a size never before attempted in the United States and in 1922 these experimentations put the firm in the crosshairs of Andrew Elliott Douglass, an astronomy professor at the University of Arizona who was attempting to build a dark sky observatory on the outskirts of Tucson. 

Andrew Elliott Douglass was an astronomer who attended Trinity College in Hartford and worked at Harvard University before moving to Arizona in 1906. After joining the University of Arizona's staff, Douglass began petitioning the university to build a research observatory outside Tucson where dark sky conditions made for it possible to observe many parts of the night sky. Douglass petitioned unsuccessfully until 1916 the university received an anonymous donation of $60,000. The donor, later revealed to be Lavinia Steward, expressly gifted the money for the purpose of creating an observatory. Douglass set to work immediately and started looking for contractors to create the research telescope that would center the new observatory. He initially sought help from the European glass firms that had designed lenses for America's other observatories. However, because these firms were entrenched in World War I, they could not manufacture the lenses Douglass needed. Because of this, Douglass was forced to seek out an American optics firm willing to attempt to produce the huge reflector discs that would act as the beating heart to his telescope. After much deliberation, Douglass selected the Spencer Lens Company. 

Douglass needed a reflector discs that measured forty inches in diameter and at first it was impossible for the Spencer Lens Company to produce lenses greater than twenty-three inches in diameter, about half as large as Douglass specified. The temperature of the molten glass proved difficult to control and lenses greater than twenty-three inches developed flaws. After a number of experiments and failed castings, the firm finally manufactured a flawless disc. The forty inch reflector disc [pictured below] took nine months to cast, grind, and cool and weighed 900 pounds.

The Spencer Lens Company's Reflector Disc

The creation of the Spencer Lens Company’s reflector disc marked an important moment in American astronomical history, as the Steward Observatory’s telescope was the first research telescope built with parts exclusively manufactured in America. The telescope was dedicated in 1923 and the Steward Observatory remained an important dark sky observatory until 1963, when light pollution from Tucson undermined the observatory’s capabilities. Despite no longer operating as an active observatory, the Steward Observatory coordinates astronomical data with a number of other American observatories and the observatory's telescope remains an important example of American innovation, and manufacturing. 

The Steward Observatory Telescope after its installation. Standing beside the telescope is Andrew Elliott Douglass.
Photo taken from Wikipedia.

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