AO Eyewear – An American Story
In 1833 William Beecher, a Connecticut farm boy, moved to Southbridge, MA after completing an jewelers apprenticeship program in Providence, RI. He then opened the Beecher Jewelry Shop to start a jewelry and watch business on Main Street in Southbridge. Over the next 20 years the little workshop became a thriving business.
Prior to this time spectacles, including optical frames and lenses, were imported from Europe, mainly England, France and Germany. He noticed that the foreign spectacles were of very poor quality and was convinced that New England workmen were capable of making spectacles that could compete with these foreign imports.
By 1843 Beecher and created the first steel frame eyeglasses in America, and these steel framed spectacles outranked all other spectacles in demand. As the business grew he developed an inexpensive way to produce the steel frames right there in Southbridge, MA.
The Business Changes Hands
As so often happens with small businesses it changed hands a number of times and when Beecher retired in 1862 the firm became the Robert H. Cole and Company. In 1852 Hiram C. Wells had joined the firm followed by his son George W. Wells in 1864 who began his career with the company as a young man of 18. The company quickly recognized that he was a genius in mechanics and he quickly gained the respect of management because there was no manufacturing problem he couldn’t solve.
In 1869 the company was incorporated as the American Optical Company with 400 shares of stock and capitalized for $ 40,000. R. H. Cole offers 22 year old George Wells a partnership in the company with 40 shares of the company. Over time he became first the treasurer of the company and then the President of the company in 1891.
The Genius Goes To Work
George Wells experience in machine work and tool making enabled him to invent newer machines and innovate the production of spectacle frames and lenses. By 1909 George held 26 patents and the company itself held another 27 patents.
Wells figured out a new method of edging split bifocal lenses and built the first spectacle bridges along with many other developments to shorten and improve manufacturing methods.
By 1933 the plant covered 17 1/2 acres of floor space in 36 connected structures.
U.S. Bureau of Standards
In 1898 the U.S. Bureau of Standards adopted the American Optical Company’s system of labeling lens power becoming another first for the company. This standard is still in use to this day.
The company thrived, even opening an office in London in 1905, and over the years George was joined by his sons Channing, Albert and Cheney. All 3 sons followed their father’s example of hard work and innovation. Back in Southbridge, MA American Optical was already employing 2,000 employees with a payroll of $ 1,000,000. per year.
American Optical had gained a reputation for for excellence and innovation, producing some of the first cylindrical and compound lenses, full-view frames, bifocals and the Lensometer.
Starting in 1914 American Optical was designing equipment to measure the lens power of spectacle lenses they were making for their spectacles. By 1921 the first American Optical Lensometer was introduced revolutionizing the spectacle industry.
The lensometer, also known as the focimeter, is an instrument used by optometrists and opticians to verify the correct prescription in a pair of eyeglasses and to properly orient and mark uncut lenses for the correct mounting in spectacle frames.
The parameters appraised by the lensometer are the values specified by an ophthalmologist or optometrist for a patient’s prescription: sphere, cylinder, axis, add and in some cases prism.
Precious Metal Frames
In 1850 American Optical introduced 14K and 18K spectacle frames. These precious metal frames made of gold and silver had gained increasing popularity with consumers and become the standard for spectacle frames.
Soon production exceeded 600,000 gold and silver frames and mountings per year, 20 times the number produced just 30 years earlier.
World War I
When the United States entered the war in Europe in 1917 one of the things needed were eyeglasses for the Allied Forces.
American Optical was called upon to provide them and demonstrating their innovation designed and built 8 mobile optical units stocked with all of the necessary frames, lenses, refractive equipment and machines for fitting and filling prescription eye glasses and sunglasses.
Two white metal frames called “Liberty” and “Victory” were put into service in the field and a record of 2 1/2 million glasses were furnished by American Optical in support of the war effort.
World War II
Once again American Optical had developed new optical products in their research laboratories including gun sights, bomb sights, aviation goggles, aviator sunglasses and precision optics for military and instrument applications.
Between 1943 and 1944 over 10 million pairs of goggles, 5 million pairs of sunglasses and more than 6 1/2 million pairs of lenses were ground and polished including 1.4 million prescription lenses delivered to the Allied Forces.
In 1946 American Optical contribution to the war effort was recognized and presented the Army-Navy “E” Award as recognition of their dedication to the cause of national defense.
Original Pilot Sunglasses
In 1958 American Optical introduced the Flight Goggle 58, now known as the Original Pilot Sunglasses, and were produced for U.S. military pilots to provide them with maximum eye protection, optical performance and comfort. Right to the present time these Original Pilot sunglasses are made in the American Optical (now known as AO Eyewear) complex in Southbridge, MA.
Among the many accomplishments of these Original Pilot sunglasses is that they were honored to be the first ever sunglasses to land on the moon. They were worn by Commander Neil Armstrong and the crew of Apollo 11 in 1969. They now reside on permanent display in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
American Optical Goes To The Moon
AO Eyewear Today
American Optical was founded in 1833 and expanded throughout the early and mid 1900’s to become the largest optical company in the world. In the 1980’s it was purchased from Warner Lambert by a gentleman who eventually sold the divisions off to competitors.
In 1989 Alan J. McKinley joined American Optical as a Controller eventually becoming President of American Optical in 1998. The owner of the company continued selling off the divisions until in August of 2005 McKinley purchased the Metal Frame Division (last remaining) from him.
Today AO Eyewear, Inc. remains in Southbridge, MA and McKinley has created the Optical Heritage Museum which details the history of spectacles in the United States and in particular the history of The American Optical Company.
In the fashion eyewear industry trends and eyewear designs come and go, but the classic design and styling of aviator sunglasses remain in vogue year in and year out.
AO Eyewear remains as committed as William Beecher to continue to uphold the value of producing the highest quality, innovative and design driven sunglasses that will withstand the test of time.
See American Optical Products
AO Warranty & Repair Information
The AO Eyewear warranty reads as follows:
The AO Eyewear Return for Repair Policy reads as follows: