Seeing with Both Eyes:
A Short Account of Opera Glasses,
Field Glasses and Binoculars in the United States
Deborah Jean Warner
Chair, Division of Medicine and Science
National Museum of American History
Washington, D.C. 20013-7012
The manufacture of binocular glasses-both the smaller ones known as opera glasses and the larger ones known as field glasses-began in Vienna in the early 1830s and soon spread to Paris and beyond. Differences in name and size notwithstanding, both forms came to be widely used, both indoors and out, and for both peaceful and military purposes.
Early Binoculars Glasses
According to advertisements and other trade literature, there was a market for opera glasses in England by the early decades of the eighteenth-century (ref. 1). The opulence of high society in the ancien régime suggests that a similar situation pertained in France, while a snarky remark made about Paris in 1819—“to a nation that cannot sleep but after being at a theatre,” an opera glass “is an article of no small importance”—suggests that the revolution did call a halt to this situation (ref. 2). Wider investigations would probably reveal similar practices in other urban centers as well. The introduction of diagonal glasses that let one see to the side while ostensibly looking forward suggests that events on the stage were not the only spectacles in the house (ref. 3). And a Cruickshank cartoon of a large George III looking at a tiny Napoleon suggests that opera glasses might be used for political purposes.
Early opera glasses were monocular instruments that, like Galileo’s telescope, produced images that were erect and slightly magnified (spyglasses, by contrast, produced images that were larger but upside down) (ref. 4). Cardboard draw tubes proliferated until the introduction of metal draw tubes in the 1790s. Achromatic lenses followed John Dollond’s discovery of the form in the late 1750s: an ad for imported achromatic opera glasses appeared in a New York newspaper in 1784 (ref. 5). By 1824, Robert-Aglaé Cauchoix of Paris was offering opera glasses that magnified seven times, and letting it be known that the Institute de France had ratified the merits of some of his instruments. That same year, William Kitchiner in England boasted of having “Three very good Achromatic Opera Glasses” made by Cauchoix that ranged in aperture from 1½ to 2 inches (ref. 6).
While the idea of binocular instruments was of long standing, Johann Friedrich Voigtländer, a Viennese optician who had honed his craft in London, deserves credit for the first practical application of the form. Voigtländer may have made his first binocular opera glasses in 1811, but the important date is 1823 when he received a Privilegium for a doppleten Theaterperspectivs from the Emperor of Austria, Franz I. This patent, good for five years, described two small Galilean telescopes mounted side-by-side (ref. 7). Bernhard Wiedholt and Anton Schwaiger, the former a mechanic in Vienna and the latter an optician, received an Austrian patent for an improvement on Voigtländer’s design soon thereafter (ref. 8).
When news of Voigtländer’s design reached Paris, an optician named Jacques-Philippe Lemière applied for a French “brevet d’importation et de perfectionnement de cinq ans, pour une lorgnette de spectacle double, à tirage parallèle, et qu’il appele lorgnette jumelle.” The illustrations accompanying Lemière’s patent application of April 28, 1825 show several designs: all have three braces between the two barrels, and some are adjustable for different inter-ocular distances. Opticians who opposed Lemière’s patent noted that Cherubin d’Orleans had discussed binocular instruments as far back 1671. Proponents argued that Lemière had introduced a novel design to France (ref. 9).
As binocular opera glasses became widely available, there were numerous attempts to improve their optical and mechanical elements. Jean-Gabrielle-August Chevallier, mathematical instrument maker and optician to the King, gained a French patent, in 1835, for a way to adjust the inter-ocular distance of the two barrels. It should be noted, however, that mechanisms for this purpose were scarcely used in the nineteenth century (ref. 10). Charles-Toussaint Bautain, one of the Paris opticians who had contested Lemière’s above-mentioned patent, received his own patents for jumelles in 1838 and 1851. The former involved a curious mechanism for adjusting the focus (ref. 11). The Parisian firm established by Jacques Lemaire and continued by his son Pierre probably produced more opera glasses than any other. This achievement was attributed to the use of machinery and division of labor—practices elsewhere described as the American System of Manufacture (ref. 12).
The most important innovation – glasses with 12 lenses, where each objective and each eyepiece was a triple achromat – came from Joseph Petzval, a professor of mathematics at the University of Vienna. Petzval shared his idea with Frederick William Voigtländer, a young optician who had taken charge of the family firm, traded as Voigtländer & Sohn (ref. 13), and was already making photographic lenses based on Petzval’s designs (ref. 14). French opticians were offering similar and equally successful jumelles à douze verres by 1845 (ref. 15).
Opera glasses covered with costly or ostentatious material—such as ivory, mother-of-pearl, enamel, jewels, or aluminum—were clearly intended for show (ref. 16). Less ornate glasses found more prosaic application. John Quincy Adams used his for star gazing (ref. 17). Samuel Clemens (later Mark Twain) used his to examine the details of Frederic Church’s great painting, The Heart of the Andes (ref. 18).
Glasses in the Field
Field glasses (feldstecher in German) were opera glasses of larger aperture, longer focal length, and higher power, and often with leather covering the barrels and shades to protect against sun glare or ocean spray. Frederick William Voigtländer introduced the form in around 1840. Circumstantial evidence indicates that glasses of this sort caught the attention of military officers who understood that soldiers with rifled arms and artillery could shoot farther and with better aim than ever before. A charming German lithograph from around 1840 shows an Austrian officer using binocular glasses in the field (ref. 19). A Scottish publication of 1842 mentioned military officers on a knoll “inspecting the surrounding country with their field-glasses.” (ref. 20) An American topographical engineer serving along the Mexican border in 1846 was said to have “dismounted, and with his field glass cooly counted the number of men in one of the enemy’s squadrons, which, of course, enabled him accurately to estimate the enemy’s entire cavalry force.” (ref. 21)
Evidence of other usage is also to be found. Scientific American reported that “The most valuable and powerful [opera] glasses are sold for whale ships, for use at the mast head, in searching for whales. They are more powerful than the most valuable spy glass, while their small size enables the sailor to use them with greater convenience. The glasses used for this purpose cost $25 to $30 each, and have lenses of great power.” (ref. 22)
During the Crimean War of the mid-1850s, field glasses were used by correspondents and spectators, as well as by officers in the field. The glasses that Florence Nightingale acquired in Marseilles, while en route to the Crimea, are now in the National Army Museum in London (ref. 23). William Callaghan, a London optician who let it be known that he was “Sole agent to Voigtländer, Vienna,” invited “Officers Proceeding on Foreign Service” to inspect his large assortment of Military Field Glasses and Reconnoitering Telescopes,” boasting that they “embrace the latest and most desirable improvements (many of which are the suggestions of experienced officers in active service), and have already elicited the highest praise from the authorities at the Horse Guards.” (ref. 24) Thomas Harris & Son, also of London, invited “officers proceeding to the East to inspect their new glasses expressly made for the service, and which have received the approval of so many distinguished officers in the Crimea.” (ref. 25)
As the clouds of war gathered over the United States after Abraham Lincoln was elected president in the fall of 1860, prescient shopkeepers saw that money could be made in this market. Under the heading “Important to Military Men,” Semmons & Co., of New York, announced that it had on hand “a splendid assortment of Military Field Glasses, combining immense power and scope in very small compass.” These glasses, probably made by Voigtländer, cost between $20 and $50, and were of the sort used by officers in the Italian War (i.e., the Second Italian War of Independence) and the Chinese War (i.e., the Second Opium War). Another advertisement headed “Important to Army and Navy Officers,” boasted that these field glasses showed objects “6 and 8 miles distinctly,” adding that “The enormous power and brilliant definition of the instrument render it better suited to the purpose than any other glass.” Most of these ads appeared in northern newspapers, but Semmons sought Confederate customers as well (ref. 26). Schuyler, Hartley & Graham, a New York firm that offered a wide range of uniforms, weapons and other goods needed for military service, sold field glasses from France. (ref. 27).
Officers were apparently as keen to acquire field glasses as dealers were to sell them. And the many paintings, drawings, prints and statues showing these men with their glasses in hand or nearby suggest that field glasses had become a widely recognized symbol of status. An 1865 oil portrait of General Ulysses S. Grant shows the Commander of the Union Army sitting beside a table which held his map and field glasses. This painting is now in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and Grant’s field glasses are in the National Museum of American History. The Museum also has the achromatic field glasses owned by General George B. McClellan. One eye tube is marked “L’Ing Chevallier / OPTICIEN” and the other “Place du Pont Neuf / PARIS.” McClellan had been one of the three American officers who had been sent abroad to learn about European military practices in the mid-1850s, and he probably encountered sophisticated optical instruments at that time. The Museum of the Confederacy, in Richmond, Virginia, has some two dozen field glasses used by Confederate officers. The ones owned by General Robert E. Lee resemble the glasses shown in his right hand in a contemporary portrait.
Long and powerful “binocular telescopes” had been discussed since the early seventeenth century, but only a few examples were actually made. The ones that the northern balloonist, Thaddeus Lowe, used to spy on Confederate troops during Civil War are now in the National Air and Space Museum. In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, when the form became somewhat popular, dealers boasted that they could be used to see bullet marks on distant targets (ref. 28).
The Signal Service, the only unit of the Union Army that purchased optical instruments during the Civil War, had some ordinary field glasses (as well as telescopes and large field glasses mounted on tripods). One extant example is marked on the crosspiece: “U.S. ARMY / Signal Glass / O.C.S.O.” The inscription refers to the Office of the Chief Signal Officer (ref. 29). Albert J. Myer, the first man to hold this position, explained in a popular text that “Binocular-glasses (marine-glasses) have, with a low magnifying power, an extensive field of view, and give much light. They are for use in observation of extensive movements, where large tracts of country must be taken in one field of view, or in sweeping the landscape in view, to find the tents of the enemy, his wagons, etc., or other objects to be afterward more closely examined with the telescope.” Myer went on to say that binocular glasses are also used on ships and boats and horseback—in all instances when a telescope is not convenient (ref. 30).
Field glasses intended for use at sea were known as marine glasses, and those sold for used at sporting events were race glasses–but these terms were often interchangeable. James W. Queen, the leading instrument dealer in Philadelphia, described the “Marine Opera Glass” as “an excellent article for sea and river use.” (ref. 31) While the Union Navy relied on European optical instruments, it had some binocular glasses made by Robert Tolles in Canastota, N.Y., and some by Alvan Clark & Sons in Cambridgeport, Mass. (ref. 32)
The Signal Service investigated optical instruments in the years after the Civil War and, as it did, instruments of this sort became available to civilians. By 1871, Americans could purchase “U.S. Army Signal Service six lens Achromatic Field Glass, metal body, covered with Turkey morocco, sun shade to extend over the object-glasses, and heavy leather case, with strap; very superior.” (ref. 33) These instruments were also available to the Indians who posed the primary threat to the Army at that time. Indeed, according to one account from 1867, the well-armed Indians even enjoyed “such modern improvements in the military science as field-glasses and a signal corps.” (ref. 34)
The Centennial Exhibition held in Philadelphia in 1876 provided an opportunity for Americans to experience and evaluate products from around the world. It is thus not surprising that representatives of the U.S. Army went to the Exhibition, in part “to secure a suitable field glass for the ordinary use of officers in the field, and, though of lesser power than the Signal-Service binocular glass, sufficiently small to be light weight and easily carried.” These men were especially impressed with the field glasses made by Bardou & Co. of Paris, noting that this form had been “adopted by the French ministry of war after a competitive trial.” (ref. 35) Believing that what was suitable for the American Army was suitable for other Americans as well, civilian shops were soon advertising “Bardou & Son, U.S. Army Signal Field Glasses.” (ref. 36) The Signal Corps (as it had become) had 219 field glasses in aluminum frames (172 from Voigtländer and 47 from Lemaire) and 256 field glasses in brass frames, in 1893. (ref. 37).
The Bureau of Navigation boasted, in 1879, that American makers could supply most of the instruments needed for the U.S. Navy. For “superior binocular glasses,” however, the Bureau had to turn to foreign manufacturers, and “hoped that this branch of industry may soon be developed to make importations unnecessary.” (ref. 38) But this hope went unheeded for many years, even as changes in warfare made binoculars ever more necessary for military actions both offensive and defensive.
As weapons became ever more powerful and new technologies such as smokeless powder made opponents harder to locate, the need for optical instruments increased as well. Thus, a reporter embedded with American troops in Cuba in 1898 could suggest that “a good pair of field glasses would admirably replace the side arm,” adding that the advent of long-range rifles “made such glasses almost a necessity.” (ref. 39)
Submarines, which captured public attention with the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915, were a serious problem for all ships plying the Atlantic. Franklin D. Roosevelt, then serving as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy at that time, sought to enhance security by increasing the number of lookouts on each American ship. He understood, however, that Americans still relied on Europe for most of their sophisticated optical instruments and that many of these European manufacturers could not or would not ship their products across the Atlantic. Drawing on a program that had been established in England a few years earlier, he requested Americans of all walks of life to lend their binoculars, spy-glasses and telescopes to the government for use at war. Under the rubric of “Eyes for the Navy,” some 52,000 “Roosevelt Glasses” were soon sent to Washington, and some 32,000 of them were deemed suitable for the job (ref. 40).
Unlike traditional opera and field glasses, prism binoculars use prism assemblies to shorten their length but not their focal length. Ignazio Porro, an Italian engineer working in Paris, designed a prism assembly around 1850. Jean Georges Hofmann, a German optician who associated with Porro, produced some monocular instruments based on Porro’s design. A.A. Boulanger, another Paris optician, obtained a French patent for prismatic binoculars in 1859. But it was Ernst Abbé’s German patent of 1893, and Carl Zeiss’s introduction of prism binoculars to market in 1894, that brought these new instruments to the fore.
Abbé obtained an American patent for his prism binoculars in June 1897. Within a year, Bausch & Lomb was producing instruments of this sort in their optical factory in Rochester, N.Y. During the Great War, the U.S. Navy established an optical shop in that worked in connection with Bausch & Lomb. By November 1918, this facility was turning out 1,600 prism binoculars a week (ref. 41). Warner & Swasey, machine tool manufacturers in Cleveland, Ohio, introduced their Universal Prism Field Glass in 1900; the lenses for this were probably made by Brashear. Both firms were soon producing these instruments in large numbers and selling many of them for military use (ref. 42). The C.P. Goerz American Optical Co. was in business in New York by 1907, selling “Trieder” prism binoculars made by C.P. Goerz, the parent company in Berlin. These could be had by commissioned and non-commissioned officers of the Army, Navy and National Guard, at the same price that they were sold to the government (ref. 43).
When the Great War came to an end, many Americans were happy to forget about military preparedness. It is thus not surprising that, in 1942, the Navy was again forced to send out a request for privately owned binoculars. Bu this time, however, it would accept only prism binoculars, only made by Zeiss or by Bausch & Lomb, and only of certain sizes (6×30, and 7×50), and it would pay each donor $1 (ref. 44).
The introduction of prism binoculars did not halt the manufacture or sale of traditional opera and field glasses. Tiffany, the posh jeweler in New York, was for many years the American agent for Voightländer, offering those glasses to customers who sought ever greater power, wider field of view and lighter weight. Mail order houses such as Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward sold less costly French opera and field glasses to those with more limited funds.
Finally, mention must be made of the nature study movement that arose in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, and that led countless ornithological and astronomical enthusiasts to invest in relatively inexpensive field glasses. The Clear Vision Field Glasses introduced by the Conestoga Corporation in Bethlehem, Pa., around 1935 and still available in the late 1950s, were advertised as suitable for Boy Scouts. Similar field glasses for Girl Scouts and Cub Scouts were advertised in the early 1950s (ref. 45).
1) Matthew Loft advertisement in the Daily Advertiser (Feb. 6, 1731, and four subsequent issues). “A Catalogue of Mathematical, Optical, and Philosophical Instruments,” in George Adams, Micrographia Illustrata (London, 1746), p. 256.
2) “Comparative Skill and Industry of France and England,” Edinburgh Review, 32 (1819): 340-389, on 374.
3) W.& S. Jones, “A Catalogue of Optical, Mathematical and Philosophical Instruments” appended to Appendix to Mr. Adams’ Geometrical and Graphical Essays (London, 1791), p. 12.
4) For an example marked “RAMSDEN / LONDON” see nms.scran.ac.uk/database/record.php?usi=000-190-004-731-C
5) Ad in the [New York] Independent Journal (April 24, 1784), p. 4.
6) William Kitchiner, The Economy of the Eyes (London, 1824), part 2, p. 173. “Comparative Skill and Industry of France and England,” Edinburgh Review, 32 (1819): 340-389, on 374.
7) Ilsa Erdmann, “Vom Mechanicus Johann Christoph Voigtländer in Wien zur Voigtländer A. G. in Braunschweig,” Zeitschrift für Firmengeschichte und Unternehmerbiographie, 7 (1962): 12-22, and 161-174; the document is shown on pp. 17-28. “Voigtlaender & Sohn“ in Chicago. World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893. Special Catalogue of the Collective Exhibition of Scientific Instruments and Appliances exhibited by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Mechanik und Optik (Berlin, 1893), pp. 141-144. Moritz von Rohr, Die binokularen Instrumente (Berlin, 1907), pp. 34-35.
8) “Bernhard Wiedolt und Anton Schwaiger,” in Janrbücher des kaiserlichen königlichen polytechnischen Institutes in Wien, 10 (1827): 235.
9) bases-brevets19e.inpi.fr/ Bulletin des Lois du Royaume de France, series 8, Regne de Charles X, vol. 3 for 1825 (Paris, 1826), p. 77. Le pere Cherubin d’Orleans, La dioptrique oculaire, ou, La theorique, la positive, et la mechanique, de l’oculaire dioptrique en toutes ses especes (Paris, 1671). Gerard Beaur, et. al., Fraude, Contrefaçon et Contrebande, de l’Antiquité à Nos Jours (Genève, 2006), pp. 684-685.
10) Jean-Gabrielle-August Chevallier, Description de Nouvelles Lunettes, dites Jumelles Centrées (Paris, 1838). Chevallier ads in Galignani’s New Paris Guide (Paris, 1837), pp. 521-522, and (Paris, 1841), pp. 552-553.
11) Bautain receipt dated 1847 with image of “NOUVELLE JUMELLE” in Pierre Marly, Spectacles & Spyglasses (1988), p. 149.
12) Paris. Exposition Universelle Internationale de 1900, Rapports du Jury International (Paris, 1902). Group III. Nicholas Gilman, A Dividend to Labor: A Study of Employers’ Welfare Institutions (Boston and New York, 1899), pp. 297–304.
13) “Professsor Petzval,” British Journal of Photography, 22 (1875): 413-416. For Voigtländer see Paris. Exposition Universelle de 1867, Rapports du Jury International (Paris, 1868), vol. 2, p. 471.
14) Andreas von Ettingshausen, “Bericht der Abteilung für Physis über die Zugfernröhre und Feldstecher von Voigtländer und Sohn,” Ősterreichs Wirtschaft, 5 (1840): 1-3. Joseph Petzval and Andreas von Ettingshausen, Leistungen von Voigtländer & Sohn, Optiker und Mechaniker in Wien (1842).
15) L’Ingénieur Chevalier, Catalogue et Prix des Instruments d’Optique, de Physique, de Mathématiques, d’Astronomie et de Marine (Paris, ), pp. 4-5. Arthur Chevalier, Catalogue Explicatif et Illustré des Instruments d’Optique et de Météorologie (Paris, 1860), pp. 16-20.
16) Arthur Chevalier, Catalogue Explicatif et Illustré des Instruments d’Optique et de Météorologie (Paris, 1860), pp. 16-20.
17) John Quincy Adams, Writings (New York, 1916), vol. 6, p. 113.
18) Samuel Clemens to his brother Orion, March 16, 1861, see www.marktwainproject.org/
19) This image is one of several hundred produced by Heinrich Ambros Eckert, drawn on a lithographic stone by Dietrich Monten, and bound in the multi-volume work, Das deutsche Bundesheer in characterischen Gruppen nach der Natur gezeichnet (ca. 1836-1843). In copy at the Library of Congress, the title page reads Les Armées d’Europe, Représentées en Groupes Charactéristiques, and the image in question is the first one in the first volume.
20) “Recollections of a Ramble through the Basque Provinces,” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 52 (1842): 200-205, on 201.
21) Thomas Bangs Thorpe, ‘Our Army’ on the Rio Grande (Philadelphia, 1846), p. 194.
22) “New Use for Opera Glasses,” Scientific American, 40 (1850): 314.
24) Callaghan ad in the (London) Morning Post (Feb. 17, 1854), p. 1, and many subsequent days.
25) Thomas Harris & Son ad in (London) Morning Chronicle (Aug. 9, 1855), and other dates.
26) Semmons ads in Harper’s Weekly (Dec. 22, 1860), p. 816, and (April 11, 1863), p. 238. Also Charleston, S.C., Mercury (Jan. 19, 1861), p. 2.
27) Schuyler, Hartley & Graham, Illustrated Catalogue of Arms and Military Goods: Containing Regulations for the Uniform of the Army, Navy, Marine and Revenue Corps of the United States (New York, 1864; reprint, 1961), pp. 77 and several unnumbered pages at the back.
28) L. Casella, List, with Notes, of Standard Meteorological and Other Instruments (London, [ca. 1860]), p. 62. James W. Queen & Co., Abridged Catalogue of Optical Instruments (Philadelphia, 1883), p. 1.
30) Albert J. Myer, A Manual of Signals: for the Use of Signal Officers in the field, and for Military and Naval Students, Military Schools, etc. (New York, 1866), pp. 211-212.
31) James W. Queen, Catalogue of Mathematical, Optical & Philosophical Instruments (Philadelphia, ), p. 24. James W. Queen & Co., Illustrated Catalogue of Mathematical, Optical, and Philosophical Instruments and School Apparatus (Philadelphia, 1859), pp. 32-33.
32) Deborah Warner and Robert Ariail, Alvan Clark & Sons. Artists in Optics (Richmond, Va., 1995), p. 165.
33) W. & L.E. Gurley, Manual of the Principal Instruments Used in American Surveying and Engineering (Troy, N.Y., 1871), p. 159.
34) “Our Treatment of the Indians a Failure,” Advocate of Peace (Sept.-Oct. 1867): 341.
35) Report of the Board on Behalf of the united States Executive Departments at the International Exhibition, Held at Philadelphia, Pa., 1876 (Washington, D.C., 1884), vol. 1, p. 993.
36) Busiest House in America, Illustrated Catalogue, 20 (1896), p. 294.
37) Report of the Secretary of War (Washington, D.C., 1893), vol. 1, p. 671.
38) Report of the Secretary of the Navy (Washington, D.C., 1880), p. 113.
39) “Arms That Do Not Kill,” New York Tribune (Aug. 9, 1898) p. 3.
40) Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Attention, Patriots!–The Navy Needs Eyes,” The North American Review, 207 (March 1918): 473. Annual Report of the Navy Department for the Fiscal Year 1919 (Washington, D.C., 1920), pp. 467 and 476. William Reid, “Binoculars and the National Service League,” Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, 84 (2006): 42-51.
41) Annual Report of the Navy Department for the Fiscal Year 1919 (Washington, D.C., 1920), p. 512.
42) Deborah Jean Warner, “Optical Elements of Fire Control, 1890-1921,” Rittenhouse, 18 (2004): 21-59, see p. 45. “An Improved Type of Zeiss Field Glass,” Scientific American, 79 (Aug. 6, 1898): 84.
43) C.P. Goerz American Optical Co., Army & Navy Binoculars (New York, ).
44) “Praise Response to Navy’s Drive for Binoculars,” Chicago Daily Tribune (Aug. 7, 1942), p. 3.
45) Ad in Boys’ Life (Jan. 1937): 33. “Close Ups from Far Away,” ad in Boys’ Life (Feb. 1935): 39.