Binoculars and field glasses

Two eyes are better than one.

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Model of sailor with binoculars 2001

Early field glasses were just the outdoor equivalent of opera glasses. They looked plainer and were covered with materials to guard against the air, sun and sea spray, but optically they were not necessarily any more effective. They seldom magnified more than three times. In the second half of the nineteenth century the word 'binocular', hitherto an adjective, became used in some trade advertisements as a noun. From about 1859 the optician Boulanger and others experimented with binocular telescopes, using prisms to re-invert the image according to the ideas of Ignazio Porro.

In the 1890s Ernst Abbe of Carl Zeiss, Jena (who had already perfected the prismatic telescope) produced a prismatic binocular with widened objective separation. This gave an improved stereoscopic effect, especially when viewing landscapes and other European companies soon attempted to produce their own versions without infringing the patent.

The Boers used Zeiss binoculars with great success in the South African War (1899-1902) and this prompted the British Army to introduce its own approved models in a series that started in 1907.

Times symbols (e.g. X5) were introduced around the turn of the century and a more full specification (including the diameter of the objective lens e.g '8x24') indicates a pair of binoculars from after the First World War.

The gallery below shows some details from paper advertising in our collection:

1. Advertisement for John Browning's opera and field glasses, London, as featured in the 7th edition of his book 'Our Eyes', 1889. Browning was the first President of the British Optical Association from 1895-1900 and is therefore, technically, the world's first professional optometrist.

2. Ultralux Prism Binoculars by Emil Busch Optical Co. Ltd, 1930s.

3. Wray British-made binoculars, distributed by C. S. Pyser Ltd since before 1935, a journal advert from 1960.

4. Leaflet issued by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds advising birdwatchers on the best equipment to obtain, 1997.

In the twentieth century The British Optical Association played a significant role in ensuring an adequate supply of military binoculars during both world wars. In 1940 it was the principal mover behind the Joint War Emergency Committee's Binocular Scheme of the Optical Profession, chaired by W. E. Barker. Some 5000 plus opticians were involved across the country and, as part of the scheme, the JWEC purchased 100 of the best binoculars deemed particularly suitable for the Observer Corps and presented them to the Air Minister during a reception held in the BOA Library.

In the second half of the twentieth century Japanese firms captured the popular market, whilst German products retained a reputation for expensive quality e.g. the Zeiss range manufactured at Wetzlar.

The gallery below shows some examples from our collection of binoculars:

1. Binoculars of brass, painted black, which belonged to a soldier who served in Burma with the Cameroon Highlanders in 1944-1945. They are quite heavy (660g). Their owner turned 18 towards the end of the war, becoming one of the youngest serving soldiers, and as such was presented to General Montgomery.

2. 'Sportsman' binocular spectacles, designed by Norman Kershaw, c.1960.

3. Binoculars by Lumiere, Paris. The outer appearance of shiny chrome and light tan leather is unusually attractive. You'd be afraid to take these outdoors lest you damaged them. Every prosperous man wanted to own a pair of quality binoculars between the wars and to carry them in a well-stitched leather case. If the case gave way you took it to a cobbler to repair.

4. Pseudoscope by Solus Engineering. It uses prisms to produce a reversal of depth perception known as pseudoscopic vision. Ours was used as a clinical device at Wexham Park Hospital in Berkshire.

Trinket binoculars

Here is a pair you'll see nothing through. It's a charming trinket in the shape of a pair of binoculars, suggesting that these functional objects could still be considered decorative and ornamental.