Archives of an email list on the history of binoculars


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Archives of an email list on the history of binoculars.

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I am forming an e-mail list on the subject of binoculars. Topics of discussion will include:

--Evaluation, testing, and use of both old and new binoculars.

--History of binoculars.

--Optics and mechanics of binoculars.

--Hand held and giant binoculars, twin telescopes, battery commander's scopes, field glasses, and any other binocular telescopes, from the years 1600-2000.

--Buying & selling binoculars (My feeling is that we should restrict it to 'for sale' notices. Most recipients of this list are looking for unusual old glass, and 'wanted to buy' ads would be numerous & unproductive. However, I'm open to the idea of including WTB messages.) Notices of services related to binoculars seem appropriate.
I welcome input on other topics that would be suitable, or any other detail of running the list.



Hello Peter et al. EXCELLENT idea of a digest mailing list. I'm on another one for vintage Thunderbirds and it's been a wealth of information. One of the things they did is create an archives of postings that is catalogued every few months. This way new-comers can read past postings and avoid asking the same questions over and

over. I'll be happy to kick off the mailing list:

My name is Randy Pakan, I'm a 45 year old Computer Graphics Technician / Photographer at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. I've been collecting antique cameras and binoculars for about 15 years. I started collecting cameras as an off shoot of being a photographer. I guess it started with realitives saying "I've

had this old camera kicking around for years -- do you want it?"

I became interested in astronomy and telescope building, and collecting antique binoculars was natural to follow. I've built several award winning telescopes and I have drawn up plans for building 6 inch mirror binoculars. Luckily one of the members in our astronomy club is an optical technician and he can grind a set of mirrors that have identical focal lengths (this is rather critical).

Enough babble for now. I hope others will introduce themselves. And I'd love to hear about any experiences in building binoculars. Randy Pakan


Randy is an e-mail acquaintance of mine. From a previous message: "I'm a photographer\digital imaging technician. I'm involved with 3D stereo mapping and various projects that use satellite imagery."

Stereo cartography is a source of much useful information on binocular vision, tolerances for alignment, etc. Randy responded to an article of mine at the Amateur Telescope Making Journal web site, 'The Early History of Binoculars', at

(This article has now been expanded into a 45 minute lecture, with over 20 examples of pre-1800 binocular telescopes). The many recent amateur-made reflecting binoculars are of great interest to me, and a spectacular example will be part of my next article for ATMJ. This one is a pair of 5 inch refracting objectives, placed 18 inches apart, in the manner of a battery commander's scope.

I neglected to include this subject in my list of suitable topics, and also forgot the very important subject of maintenance & repair of old binoculars.

Another response to my first message was from Fred Watson, who is known to most of us as the author of the booklet, "Binoculars, Opera Glasses, and Field Glasses", to this date the only book in the English language on the overall history of binoculars. The other book in English is Steve Rohan's volume on German 10 x 80s of WWII, and he is on the list as well. I will note that Fred's response went directly to the list, because of a failure on my part to configure Eudora correctly, which should be corrected at this point. This was not a problem here, but there are a few reasons for keeping the list a 'digest': traffic on the list could increase to many messages a day, junk mail 'spammers' can be kept off by keeping the list under tighter privacy controls, and occasionally someone will post a huge file (usually an image) that can 'choke' member's e-mail software (we need a policy on posting images, any readers who cannot receive them should let me know). I believe most list members will be glad for a 'digest' of messages, however, I'm open to other ideas. Fred did mention one of the ancillary reasons for having a list, and that is to persuade Hans Seeger, John Gould, Bill Reid, and others to get on e-mail.
Randy discussed archives, an optimistic idea at this point, but an excellent resource of the other lists I'm on. For now, the archives will be a text file in my computer (and other recipients will keep one, I'm sure.) We do need a software expert to set us up with the efficient programs for group e-mail and searchable archives, but that person will not be me, so every once in a while I'll post a message to see if we have acquired such a resource.


I invited Jack Eastman, an optical engineer at Lockheed Martin in Denver and longtime stargazer, & observer at Chamberlin Observatory (20" Alvan Clark), to join us. He starts a thread on near-fatal encounters with binoculars:

I have a bino story that almost got me killed a couple of weekends ago. We had our annual auction at the observatory and it was a beautiful day. I decided to ride the bike, probably not the best idea in case I buy an 8-inch brashear or something, but I rode anyway. If I had driven I'd have gone up Santa-fe to Evans and across

to D.U. On the bike I went over on Dartmouth thru the back streets to the obs. Well, being a sucker for garage sales, I stopped at one about half-way to the auction, and there they were a set of German tank binos, 10X80. Figuring the guy would want a bunch of bucks for these I almost left, I couldn"t carry these thing on the bike anyhow. He quoted his price--Egad only slightly more than a steak-n-eggs at Dennys. Well it turns out I could carry these on the bike after all (all 18# of them. My saddlebags will never be the same) and since I was closer to the obs. than home, I continued to the obs. thinking I could leave them there and pick them up the next time I drove over. When I showed up I was almost mugged by a half dozen crazed bino hunters, but I did survive and the binos seem in excellent optical condition, the really need cleaning on the inside, but the external optical surfaces were free of scrathes digs

etc. I didn't buy the 20-inch Clark, so I did get the binos home OK.



#2: 11/6/97

The list heard from Bob Ariail, preeminent student & collector of early telescopes:

From: "Robert B, Ariail"

"To my knowledge, those interested in a detailed investigation of binoculars have been somewhat of a 'lonely hearts society' in the past. Your program should allow a productive exchange of ideas, details, and facts for all interested participants."

Yes, it's always lonely in the elite classes.
Bob added some topics of discussion [and I reply]:

"Coated vs uncoated binoculars (advantages, disadvantages, effects of magnification, etc.)"

[My feeling is that coatings are an unalloyed joy, but I have read that they can increase scatter, an idea that I am not prepared to accept. Any comments?]
"The effects of binoculars on seeing (do binoculars - particularly binocular telescopes effectively provide steadier seeing? -etc.)"

[Binocular telescopes do not increase resolution over a monocular instrument, but greatly increase contrast & reduce fatigue over long observing sessions. This most complicated subject is of great interest.]

"The age of the observer as related to modern wide-angle binoculars (positives, negatives, etc.)"

[As the maximum pupil diameter of the observer decreases with diminishing youth, the dimensions of the ideal binocular do change, to higher magnification or smaller objectives, to produce a smaller exit pupil. But do the wide angle oculars lose utility? One thing's for sure: I wouldn't want all those hormones again just to gain a wider entrance pupil.]


Subject: M3

Here's a paragraph I wrote in answer to a question about a Wollensak M3: I'd appreciate any additions, corrections, or references:

The M3 was a standard US Army binocular of WWII. It was made by B&L, Universal Camera Corp., Nash-Kelvinator, and Westinghouse. The paper I have does not mention an M3 by Wollensak, but that is not surprising, during WWII, binocular production was farmed out to all sorts of odd companies. B&L and other optical giants made most of the optics for the various manufacturers. There were minor differences in weatherproofing, reticles, and possibly some were coated. The M3 incorporated an improvement, a setscrew to hold the eccentric ring objective cell, to keep it from rotating when getting knocked around. The M3 has a 8 degree, 30 min. FOV, an f4.4 objective, and the reticle is graduated in mils (horizontal) and hundreds of yards (vertical). Wollensak is well known in the US as a maker of photographic equipment. They split off from B & L in 1899 to make shutters. They had 1200 employees in 1958, but were bought by Revere and then 3M and were closed in 1972. They made many products for the military during WWII. --Peter


Subject: Reference material on binoculars.

My favorite subject. I have assembled a large collection of photocopied catalogs, articles, manuals, military reports, and other paper concerning binoculars. I accomplished this by trading with other collectors, and it has really paid off for all concerned. If you have any old or unusual paper on the subject, please let me know & I'm sure I can find something of interest to you that will motivate you to send me a copy. All of my paper is available for others to use & copy, but I don't have the time to make copies for everyone of anything they might want.

As we all know, there is no book length reference on the general history of the binocular in English. Until one is written, the papers that collectors have accumulated to go with their instruments are all we let's share it. --Peter


We have another new member, Larry Gubas, archivist for Zeiss Historica, Lngubas@___com

We couldn't do better than this for references on the many interesting instruments made by Zeiss.


#3: From American Optical to Zeiss. 11/8/97

Subject: our resident Japanese translator

I was hoping Charlie would make himself known without needing persuasion. Japanese instruments are very difficult to research, and even the middle level binoculars deserve respect for their optical quality.

From: Charles Orzech

Fellow Afficionados of Binoculars,

I am a professor of religious studies specializing in medieval Chinese Buddhism here at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. I grew up in an optical family--my father worked for American Optical in Southbridge MA, toward the end of his life as a fusion tech. in fiberoptics. My mother was an inspector in the lens plant. In college I first majored in Astronomy and Astrophysics at U Mass but bailed out of that major after I hit the planetary atmospheres class. My current research is on medieval Chinese Buddhist astronomy.

I am an active amateur with a special interest in binoculars and have recently been restoring a Yashima 15X80 45 degree inclined glass from 1945 and a 10X60mm 60 degree inclined glass from Fuji (also WWII, I need a roof prism for it). I am always looking for "big glass" so if any of you have anything you want to part with let me know! Also, if you need Japanese labels on old glass translated I can do it.

By the way, a local antique dealer has an M3 in so-so condition for $75. This one is coated and has the decal on the left prism cover "Coated Optics--clean with care."

regards, Charlie Orzech (910) 856-0597


Subject: American Optical

AO traced its beginnings to William Beecher, who in 1833 began making spectacle frames in Southbridge, Mass. A merger in 1869 formed AO. They began making spectacle lenses and ophthalmic optics around 1885. In 1935, they acquired Spencer Lens Co., and began production of AO microscopes, including some extremely fine instruments, notably their petrographic microscopes. In 1942, there were 5,486 employees in Southbridge (the maximum). Other factories were located in Keene, NH; Brattleboro, VT, Cambridge, MA; Frederick, MD; Buffalo, NY; Canada, England, Germany, and Brazil. AO had about 250 affiliated retail outlets in the U.S. Warner-Lambert purchased AO in 1967, Reichert became a partner in 1982, Cambridge Instruments bought the group in 1986 (and bought B & L's optical systems division in 1987), and in turn were acquired by Leica.

Spencer Lens made binoculars for the Navy during the WWII era, in 6 x 30, 7 x 35, and 7 x 50 configuration, and some were sold as consumer stock after the war. The Spencer 7 x 50s are distinguished by their slightly oversized prisms, and a field of view that is wider by one half a degree than the standard WWII 7 x 50, with an apparent field of view of 7 degrees, 39 seconds.

I believe I have seen Japanese binoculars with the AO imprint. Is there any additional information on AO or Spencer binoculars?


Padgitt, Donald. A Short History of the Early American Microscopes. London: Microscope Publications, 1975.

Warner, Deborah. Optical Manufacturing in the United States. Chapter 6 of J. William Rosenthal, Spectacles and Other Vision Aids. San Francisco: Norman Publishing, 1996. --Peter

Subject: Zeiss instruments

We hear from Larry Gubas, who will be a considerable asset to the group if he isn't swamped with requests for assistance.

From: Lngubas@___om

I would be happy to participate in the group and do any research needed on Zeiss stuff, although I become more and more convinced every day of the number of unique instruments that they made, especially in WWII. My big function in Zeiss Historica is to identify things and I will be happy to do that for this group as well and follow up with documentation but images via the Internet are very slow and something that I would still prefer to do via snail mail. My cataloged based information is open to everyone. I have lost a lot of my available free time via work and so I have less time for real long letters.

I recently indentified a "Dosenfernrohr" for someone in California. It is the older revolving eyepiece telescope that they made before the Starmorbi, Asembi, et al. and it used the "Abbe-Amici" prisms. The head of the Zeiss museum did not know the translation of the name and so could not identify the instrument. I was able to send an english version of the text from a catalog.

Do you know of the third Seeger book? It is mostly catalog information from Zeiss military during WW II. I have yet to track a copy down to purchase.



Subject: Siegried Czapski

In response to an earlier e-mail, Larry enclosed a paragraph that he wrote on Czapski, an important optical engineer at Zeiss.

Siegfried Czapski: joined the firm on a recommendation from Helmholz in 1884 and quickly evolves into Dr. Abbe's immediate assistant. He works to take the formulas and ideas that Abbe has formed over the two prior decades into specific usable products. He also assisted in the growth of the firm into a quality producer of precision instruments and optical products. Carl Zeiss would be held up as an example of manufacturing prowess in Europe thanks to his work. He became well known as a the author explaining many of the optical and mechanical processes at the firm and was the primary informer to the public and the scientific community with regard to many of the firms discoveries. As Schott glasses became available, he made recommendations for their use to internal scientists.

In particular he wrote the articles in the Central Magazine for Optics and Mechanics in the mid-1890's which introduced the prism binoculars and attendant theories of Ernst Abbe to the world. He toured and lectured on the developments within the scientific elements of the firm. He published "The Theory of Optical Instruments after Abbe" in 1893 which he updated with Otto Eppenstein in 1904 and which was updated again in 1924 by Eppenstein and Hans Boegehold.

His own scientific output included the Corneal Microscope. Although he was a member of the board of management from the outset, he succeeded Abbe as the guiding spirit when he retired in 1903 and more so on Abbe's death in 1905. However, his participation was not very long in this role since he died soon after in 1907 following severe complications following a simple appendectomy. He outlived his mentor by just slightly more than two years but they were important transitional years that cemented the Stiftung and its way of doing business.



#4: Anchors Aweigh. 11/12/97

From: Earl Osborn

I'm very glad to be a member of this group and will help in any manner I can. I am truly looking forward to the outstanding opportunities that will come to expand my historical understanding of these wonderful instruments. First of all I will introduce myself. While my business is Osborn Optical Systems, I will be here to learn and assist others, not solicit work. I have almost 24 years in the field of optical instrument repair, restoration, and custom design for the U.S. Navy, Army, and Air Force, various goverment agencies, museums and a half dozen commercial concerns. While the majority of the instruments that I work on are of the binocular type(several hundred per year) from 4x23 to over 40x180, I also work on virtually anything with a lens, prism, or mirror. That is; rangefinders, gunsights, submarine periscopes, navigation and surveying equipment, night vision, microscopes, and many, many others from practically every optics country on the planet. While I have gained an extensive background in the fabrication, design, and materials from as far back as the late 1780's up to many current R&D programs, I am lacking in much of the history of the makers and manufactures of these wonderful instruments. I will be more than happy to help anyone in the group to the extent of my knowledge, so feel free to contact me. If I am a day or two slow at responding, please be patient, I subcontract for quite a few companies that claim to do optical work.

A clarification on the Spencer 7x50 binocular information. The objective prism is indeed slighly larger than rest of the standard U.S. military 7x50 prisms. But the eyepiece prism is slightly smaller. Also the collective lens and eyelens are larger as well. Spencer also made microscopes under their own name for a while.

The third Seeger book is indeed a reprint of the Zeiss spec sheets. Deutsche Optik in CA. (1-800-225-9407) has the book (Tell Mike I said "hi"). [@___.]

To all; take it easy, God Bless, and remember, "Optics is Light work". Earl Osborn


Subject: Navy Optical Facilities

We currently have at least 3 ex-opticalmen on the list. One of the areas of history that is right at the edge of being lost is the tradition of Navy training schools & facilities for optical repair. There are some very fine instruments that were known only to Navy circles, including some of the binoculars, and especially the fire control rangefinders built into the big ships. I am fortunate to be friendly with a specialist in the repair of these instruments, Jim Rose, retired civilian chief of the Long Beach Naval Shipyard Optical Shop. Below is an excerpt from my next article for the "Amateur Telescope Maker's Journal", entitled 'Rangefinders and Stereoscopic Telescopes'. (There is also a paragraph on a new amateur made binocular telescope,with 5 inch objectives, spaced 18 inches apart, in Arizona.) Battery commander's telescopes are my absolute favorite optical tool; with enhanced depth, the views are beautiful. If you want to read the whole article, you'll just have to subscribe. The ATMJ is published by Bill Cook, another ex-opticalman (and list recipient), and the web site is: --Peter


Subject: Rangefinders

Truly remarkable instruments were used by the U.S. Navy (among others,) from prior to WWI through the 1980s, for controlling the large guns of their ships. Some of these rangefinders used coincidence sighting, where two images were brought together in the viewfinder and the distance read off a scale. Others were stereoscopic rangefinders that gave a true stereo image of the target. A reticle for each eye was fixed in the tube, and formed a stereo image that appeared to move towards & away from the observer when optical wedges were rotated. When the image of the reticles (an arrangement of diamond shapes,) seemed to be at the distance of the target, the actual distance to the target could be estimated.

There was extensive research and development on these fire control instruments during the 1920s, and they were the primary tool used to aim naval guns through most of this century. The longest recorded distance for optical rangefinder controlled gunfire, successfully firing on a moving target from a moving battleship, is 26,400 yards, achieved in 1940 by the British. These rangefinders were designed around a particular gun, and the distances at which they were accurate were determined by the range of the gun. In the U.S. Navy, the Mark 41 (1930s) and Mark 75 (1950s) had objectives eleven feet apart, a near focus of 1200 yards, and maximum useful range of 20,000 yards. These were made by Keuffel & Esser, weighed about 1200 pounds, and had 147 glass elements, including lenses, prisms, wedges, reticles, mirrors, and frosted elements. There were 15 foot models, weighing about 1500 pounds, in a motorized mount that was connected with servos to a gyroscope, to maintain the horizon at a level. The 11 and 15 foot models could be targeted on aircraft, and longer instruments were used to range ships and targets on shore. Larger models were made by Bausch and Lomb, including the 26.5 foot used with the common 16 inch guns. The Mark 52 consisted of a 25 power system with objectives 46 feet apart, weighing 10,500 pounds and costing about $100,000 during World War II. Near focus was 5,000 yards, maximum use at 45,000 yards.

One interesting aspect of later rangefinders is that they were gas charged with helium, since it is the only gas with an index of refraction that does not change in the temperature range encountered by these instruments, and the extreme length of the rangefinders mandated this stability. Helium can leak through steel, and necessitates yet another level of maintenance for personnel.

These instruments were closely held secrets during their era (still used in foreign fleets,) and their size and weight ensured their dismantling on retirement. Very few persons have had the privilege of viewing through one, and the effect can only be imagined.


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