George Wells, founder of the American Optical Company, had technical skill, ingenuity, and a willingness to take risk. These qualities shaped his company and made it an early industrial success story. His sons followed him into the business and shared his drive for advanced optometry. But along with their interest in cutting-edge technology, the Wells family had a passion for the past, a passion that produced Old Sturbridge Village.
It makes sense that Old Sturbridge Village re-creates the period in history that gave birth to the American Optical Company. In 1826 William Beecher, a jeweler and watchmaker, settled in Southbridge, a small town on the Massachusetts/Connecticut border. He was part of a relatively new trend jewelers expanding into the business of spectacle making.
In the 1700s and early 1800s, almost all spectacles sold in the United States were imported from Europe, which had a 600-year-old tradition of making glass and crystal lenses to magnify images. When the War of 1812 cut off trade with Great Britain, a Scottish immigrant decided to manufacture his own gold and silver frames and add American-made lenses. The venture was a success, and many jewelers branched out into making frames and lenses.
Within seven years of his arrival in Southbridge, William Beecher opened a shop above his jewelry store to manufacture spectacles. This part of Beecher's business prospered. He taught one of his apprentices, a 14-year-old boy named Robert Cole, to craft the first steel-framed spectacles made in America. Steel was less expensive than gold or silver, and the steel-framed spectacles were instantly popular. Beecher expanded, and competitors opened other shops nearby. Steel frames were soon outselling all other kinds, and Southbridge became a center of the American spectacle-making industry. When Beecher retired in 1862, Robert Cole took over the firm.
Just at this time, George Wells, a schoolteacher from nearby South Woodstock, Connecticut, left his job to become an apprentice at Robert H. Cole and Co. Young Wells had a genius for mechanics. Soon the 18-year-old was inventing new machines that solved longstanding manufacturing problems; spectacle production increased dramatically.
When Robert Cole foolishly refused to raise Wells's pay, the youth went to work for a competitor. Several times Cole hired Wells back, but he could not keep him. The young mechanic bought an interest in a competing business. In 1869 Cole proposed merging the two concerns; the result was the American Optical Company.
At the age of 23, George Wells was co-owner of what would eventually become one of the largest and most respected optical companies in the world. The risk-taking Wells bought a big textile mill with the best water rights in Southbridge. He converted the textile mill to an optical factory. By almost single-handedly turning Southbridge from being a textile town to an optical town, George Wells ensured its prosperity for generations. Within ten years, he had gained majority control of the company stock. By 1879 American Optical was a Wells family business.
Over the next 30 years, George Wells developed and patented 26 different tools for splitting, cutting, and grinding lenses and for milling spectacle frames. The company thrived. Eventually George's sons Channing, Albert, and Cheney joined their father. All three followed his example of hard work and innovation. The company maintained its reputation for excellence and innovation, producing some of the first cylindrical and compound lenses, full-view frames and bifocals, and the Lensometer.
Like a number of other industrialists (such as Henry Ford, who founded Greenfield Village in Michigan), the Wells brothers shared a passion for collecting historical artifacts. Albert (or A.B. as he was known) especially enjoyed searching out and saving objects used by ordinary people in rural New England. Perhaps because his own livelihood depended on precision machinery, A.B. loved what he called "primitives," things that had been handmade, particularly if they were ingenious in design. Cheney Wells preferred to collect old clocks and timepieces. Channing's special interest was furniture.
By the 1930s the Wells's collections had outgrown their homes and worn thin the patience of their wives. In 1935 they incorporated the Wells Historical Museum; the next year they decided to create an open-air "living museum." The leading force was A.B.'s son George, who envisioned a working village complete with craftsmen and other costumed staff who would help visitors experience the past by participating in it. It was a bold plan, and the other members of the family embraced it.
They purchased a 153-acre tract in the neighboring town of Sturbridge and began searching for buildings they could buy and move to the site. The hurricane of 1938 almost destroyed the project, but the Wellses persevered. In 1946 Old Sturbridge Village opened to the public, with George's capable wife, Ruth Dyer Wells, as the first director. Ruth Wells would play a crucial role in the museum for the next 35 years.
At the same time, American Optical continued to grow. By mid-century its plants covered 17.5 acres of floor space in 36 different buildings. But the business began to suffer from foreign competition. By 1992 the company had relocated its manufacturing operations to Mexico, and five years later, the corporate headquarters moved to San Diego. In 1980 the U.S. Department of Defense signed a long-term lease on AO's property for use as a training center. Demolition of the main plant left the factory facade as a reminder of the American Optical Company's place in Southbridge's history and in its heart.
"American Optical Manufacturing Company of Southbridge, Massachusetts"
"Celebrating 50 Years of History," by Jack Larkin and Mark Ashton, in Old Sturbridge Visitor, Spring 1996.
The Wells Family: Founders of American Optical Company and Old Sturbridge Village (privately printed, 1979).
"World's Largest Manufacturer of Ophthalmic Lenses," by Ivan Sandrof, Worcester Sunday Telegram, August 10, 1958.