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September 2009 - John Browning Jeweller's Spectroscope

Browning jewellers spectroscope

As the nights are drawing shorter we can revert to that traditional parlour game of name the most famous optometrist! According to his recent book Everything You Never Wanted to Know and Never Bothered to Ask by our College Fellow Brian Ariel FCOptom, there are several candidates from the worlds of sport and entertainment such as the cricketing optometrist Geoff Lawson, an ex Australian Test Bowler and former coach to the Pakistan National Team, or the musical optometrist Rudy von Gelder, a legendary recording engineer for Blue Note jazz records. There are infamous optometrists such as Reinhardt Schwimmer, a member of the Moran gang shot dead by Al Capone’s gang in the St Valentines Day Massacre in Chicago, 1929, or optometrists who crop up in unexpected circumstances such as Robert Graham, who founded the first 'genius' sperm bank in California.

To Brian's list we might add the first optometrist to be appointed a Peer of the Realm, Lord Charnwood, or Will Griffiths, the first optician to be elected a Member of Parliament (though not the first to stand for that office). Some would plump for John Sutcliffe, in terms of international honours the most decorated optometrist of the twentieth century. Or how about George Giles...to a whole generation of practitioners quite possibly the most memorable optometrist they ever encountered?

Historians of science would have little problem in nominating their candidate. The most famous optometrist is John Browning (c.1830-1925). He had already built a reputation for manufacturing scientific instruments of the highest quality for use across the disciplines of physics (including astronomy), chemistry and biology. Furthermore, unless you buried your head in the sand, you couldn't fail to hear about these. A prolific publicist, he and his successors placed about 1500 advertisements in the prestigious journal 'Nature' between 1869 and 1930, which have been the subject of an important academic study in their own right. Whilst his business prospered he also became an early published authority on tricycles. Then, in or before the 1890s when he was already in his sixties, Browning was at the forefront of the new movement for 'scientific' sight-testing. In 1895 he helped form the British Optical Association, the world's first professional and examining body for optometry and had the honour not only of being elected its first President but of being entered into the Register as Member No 1. John Browning is thus the world's first professional optometrist.

This month's object symbolises John Browning perfectly. It is a form of spectroscope, the instrument on which his reputation rested primarily. Unusually it is spectacle-mounted, which points to his work as an ophthalmic optician, and its use was probably for jewellers in the examination of gemstones, which serves as a reminder of how many opticians also worked in the jewellery business in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It probably dates from around 1900-1910 which places it slap bang at the pinnacle of his career, the era when he lent his personal prestige to the formation of a new and forward-looking profession.

If anyone can furnish any more specific information on this particular item which the museum has just acquired, we would be very grateful if you would contact us.

For more on Browning and his spectroscopes see our MusEYEum page on spectroscopy

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      1. May 2010 - Optically-themed currency
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      6. December 2009 - Tactile Christmas Card
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      9. September 2009 - John Browning Jeweller's Spectroscope
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      37. May 2007 - The Case of the Unhygienic Contact Lens
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