Below is a concise history of the Wollensak Optical Company, its predecessor and its successors.
1899, July 1: Stephan Rauber (President) and brothers Andrew Wollensak (Vice President) and John Wollensak (Secretary) establish the Rauber and Wollensak Optical Company in Rochester, New York.
The Rauber and Wollensak Optical Company rents 250 square feet in an old barn at the corner of Cappel Place and Clinton Ave North for the duration of 1899. Andrew Wollensak personally delivers batches of shutters to local customers in a market basket.
Andrew Wollensak, age 36, had been a machinist at Bausch and Lomb since 1883, rising to foreman of the shutter department and working with Edward Bausch on the Iris Diaphragm shutter. Andrew Wollensak’s parting from Bausch and Lomb seems to have been amicable, since within four years of his departure, Edward Bausch, Carl Lomb and other members of the Bausch and Lomb families had purchased stock in Wollensak’s new company.
1900: The Rauber and Wollensak Optical Company moves to 3,600 square feet of manufacturing space in the Karl Lithographic Company building at 280 Central Ave.
1900, May 14: The Rauber and Wollensak Optical Company is incorporated under the laws of the State of New York. The initial capital stock is $40,000 at $100 per share, of which $26,500 is sold in 1900. Initial shareholders are Stephan Rauber (10 shares), Frederick Rauber (120 shares), Andrew Wollensak (120 shares), and John Wollensak (15 shares).
1900, October 17: Frederick Rauber transfers his stock to Stephan Rauber.
1902, February 4: Stephan Rauber sells his stock to Harry Gorton. The company is renamed the Wollensak Optical Company, with Andrew Wollensak as President, John Wollensak remaining as Secretary, and Harry Gorton as Vice President and Treasurer.
1902: John Wollensak establishes and leads the company’s new optical department, starting with three lens grinding and polishing spindles and one assistant. Overall, the company has 32 employees.
1902, September 6: The Wollensak Optical Company produces its first lens, a landscape single achromatic which later retailed for 75 cents.
1906, January 9: The Wollensak Optical Company completes the purchase of the Rochester Lens Company. The sale includes the patents to the Royal Anastigmat Lenses (later renamed the Velostigmat) and the Royal Portrait Lens (later renamed the Vitax).
1907: The Wollensak Optical Company has 130 employees.
1909: Wollensak introduces the Optimo shutter and launches the Velostigmat line of lenses.
1911: Wollensak collaborates with H. Oliver Bodine to manufacture and sell Bodine’s Pictorial Lens under the name of the Wollensak Verito. Bodine joins the company, becoming head of Wollensak’s Promotion of Trade Department.
1911: The Wollensak Optical Company moves to 444 Central Ave. with 25,000 square feet of factory space.
1912: The company has about 190 employees.
1914, March 1: The Wollensak Optical Company opens its first dedicated factory, a 40,000 square foot building at 1415 Clinton Ave North. Groundbreaking on the new buildings occurred October 16th of the previous year. The company has approximately 300 employees.
1916: Harry Gorton leaves the company, Jacob Magin becomes treasurer.
1917-1918: During World War I, the Wollensak Optical Company devotes 90% of factory production to the war effort, producing trench periscopes, battery commander telescopes, aerial cameras, and other optical equipment for the armed forces.
1918: The Wollensak Optical Company builds a three-story addition on the back of the Clinton Ave factory, doubling the floor space for a total of nearly 80,000 square feet. The company has about 500 employees.
1920: The Wollensak Optical Company has over 600 employees.
1920: Eastman Kodak, seeking to become more self-reliant, ceases buying Wollensak’s Optimo shutter for its cameras. Faced with loss of one of largest customers, Wollensak diversifies, producing pocket telescopes, binoculars, field glasses, microscopes, and other optical equipment.
1925, April-May: The Wollensak Optical Company moves to 872 Hudson Ave, a factory building with 100,000 square feet of manufacturing space which formerly housed the Home Profit Hosiery Company.
1929: The Wollensak Optical Company partners with Buffalo-based photographer Howard D. Beach to develop, manufacture, and market the Beach Multifocal Lens.
1933, April 24: John C. Wollensak dies at age 69. His sons Frank and Andrew A. Wollensak remain active in the company.
1936, January 10: Andrew Wollensak dies at age 73. Jacob Magin, treasurer of the company since 1917 and Andrew Wollensak’s son-in-law, becomes President of the Wollensak Optical Company. Frank Wollensak and George Hawks become Vice Presidents and Andrew A. Wollensak becomes Secretary.
1939, June 23: The Wollensak Optical Company announces the purchase of the unoccupied Holz Clothing Company factory at 850 Hudson Ave, adding 40,000 square feet of floor space. The existing facility at nearby 872 Hudson becomes exclusively a lens plant, while 850 Hudson is used for administration and all other Wollensak manufacturing operations.
1941-1945: During World War II, all Wollensak production is devoted to material for the war effort, including the optical components of the Norden bombsight, prism binoculars, gun sights, spyglasses, and shutters for aerial and ground cameras. The company is awarded the Army-Navy E Pennant with three stars, an honor presented to top performers of the civilian war industry for excellence in wartime production.
1943: Wollensak speeds development of the high speed Rapax shutter to meet the wartime needs of the U.S. Armed Forces.
1945: Wollensak adds 40,000 square feet of manufacturing space. In August, the company introduces a “Name the Lens” competition for the new line of post-war lenses.
1945, December 28: Wollensak announces that Mr. Templin R. Licklider, Jr. of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan has won the “Name the Lens” contest with his prize-winning suggestion of “Raptar.” The runners-up were “Colotar” and “Micronar.”
1946, July: Specially-designed Wollensak cine lenses on high-speed Fastax cameras are used to film Operation Crossroads, a series of two U.S. atomic bomb tests in the Bikini Atoll.
1947: Wollensak launches the Raptar line of lenses and retires the Velostigmat line. The Velostigmat Series 1a and Series II lenses are re-designated as the Raptar Series 1a and Series II lenses, with identical optical designs but with the addition of Wollensak’s “Wocote” single lens coating.
1947, May 14: Wollensak announces the sixth addition to the factory at 850 Hudson: a 5,000 square foot space to house the expanded Wocoting process.
1949: The Wollensak Optical Company employs 1,100 workers.
1949, April 7: Edward Springer succeeds Jacob Magin as President of the Wollensak Optical Company.
1949, October 8 – November 15: Production at the Wollensak plants is closed for five weeks as 660 Wollensak employees strike after the company-union contract expires. At issue are seniority and employee transfer rights.
1950, June 23: Wollensak acquires rights to the Fastax high speed camera from the Western Electric Co. The camera, developed by Bell Laboratories and capable of recording up to 18,000 frames per second, is used in many military, scientific, and industrial applications.
1950: Total annual Wollensak sales are nearly $4 million, net profit is nearly $95,000.
1951: Total annual Wollensak sales are $5.6 million, net profit is nearly $142,000.
1952, June: Wollensak launches the pioneering Mirrotel and Fototel lenses using concentric mirrors for telephoto applications.
1952: Total annual Wollensak sales are $5.7 million, net profit is nearly $43,000. 1952 sales by major product category are: shutters and lenses for still cameras (47%), lenses for motion picture cameras (28%), high-speed Fastax cameras (15%), with television lenses, binoculars, scopes, filters, prisms, etc. comprising the remaining 10%. Sales by major customer category are: manufacturers (75%), dealers and distributors (10%), U.S. government agencies (15%). Wollensak’s largest customers are Graflex, Inc., the Revere Camera Company, and the Bolsey Corporation of America.
1953, May 28: The Revere Camera Company of Chicago purchases the majority of Wollensak Optical Company stock (roughly 70%) for over $1.5 million. Within weeks, Wollensak and Revere executives announce plans for a major expansion of 850 Hudson Ave and plans to hire hundreds of additional workers and introduce new products. Wollensak continues to operate as a separate entity despite Revere majority ownership.
1953, November: Wollensak employment reaches an all-time high of 1,200 workers. A 40,000 square foot brick, glass and steel expansion of 850 Hudson Ave is planned for completion the following July, bringing total Wollensak manufacturing space to 130,000 square feet.
1954, March 15: Wollensak President Edward Springer unveils a new line of Wollensak cameras and projectors at the annual meeting of the Master Photo Dealers and Finishers Association in Chicago. The new products include the Wollensak 10 Stereo Camera and several 8mm and 16mm cine cameras. The cameras are mainly premium versions of existing Revere products featuring upgraded Wollensak lenses.
1955, February 10: Wollensak labor and management send a joint telegram to Congressman Harold Ostertag protesting the Eisenhower administration’s reduction of tariffs on imported photographic and optical products. The telegram blames the layoff of 400 employees within the last year and the 90% reduction in Wollensak’s shutter business on imports from German and Japanese manufacturers paying hourly wages 75% less than Wollensak’s.
1956, May 11: Wollensak announces the “Fastair” camera, designed to fly aboard missiles and record flight characteristics. The high-speed camera is built to withstand 100 G and record between 12-600 pictures per second.
1957, December 31: Cora Smith, the longest-serving employee in Wollensak’s history, retires after 56 years with the company. Ms. Smith joined the company on January 2, 1902 at the age of 14. She began cleaning shutters and retired as an inspector on the shutter line.
1959, June: Wollensak has approximately 800 employees.
1960, July 22: The 3M Corporation purchases the Revere Camera Company, which in turn completes the purchase of all remaining Wollensak stock. Wollensak, with approximately 700 employees, becomes part of 3M’s Photographic Equipment and Optical Division.
1961, May 5: Alan Shepard’s first space flight is recorded by specially made Wollensak 25 mm Raptar lenses aboard the Mercury Freedom 7 spacecraft.
1961, December 7: Former Wollensak president Edward Springer announces his resignation as general manager of 3M’s Wollensak division while his son, Robert Springer, resigns as treasurer. The departures come amid rumors that 3M-Revere may move Wollensak engineering and sales functions from Rochester to Chicago.
1965, November 16: In a reorganization, Wollensak becomes part of 3M’s Microfilm Products Division. Wollensak employs approximately 550 workers.
1966-1968: 3M’s Wollensak division incurs substantial and increasing operating losses, with losses in 1968 twice those of 1967. Sales of photographic lenses decline sharply, comprising less than 25% of Wollensak’s output.
1968, May 13: 3M sells Wollensak’s Fastax camera line to the Redlake Corporation of California.
1969, February 10: 3M announces the sale of the Wollensak division to Mario Alves of Long Island, New York and Laird Inc., a New York brokerage and investment firm. The new company, with about 400 workers, is named Wollensak, Inc.
1970, January 19: Wollensak, Inc. purchases Polan Industries of Huntington, West Virginia to be operated as an autonomous division with 250 employees. Wollensak, Inc. has about 350 employees in Rochester. The Polan acquisition, with experience manufacturing infra-red optical systems for the military, is seen as a bid to grow Wollensak Inc.’s government contract work.
1970: Wollensak, Inc. struggles with product delivery delays. By the end of the year, Wollensak, Inc. debts are nearly equal to corporate assets.
1971, October: The U.S. Tariff Commission denies a petition filed by Wollensak, Inc. on August 11, 1971 claiming that articles imported under trade agreements are causing serious injury to the company. The commission notes that the conditions within the Wollensak division in particular and the optical industry in general were evident prior to Wollensak, Inc.’s establishment in 1969, that importation of lenses did not increase since 1969, and unanimously finds that imports are not the major factor causing serious injury to Wollensak, Inc.
1972, January 29-30: Wollensak, Inc. announces plans to move manufacturing operations to its Polan Industries subsidiary in Huntington, West Virginia, as well as a facility in Pomona, California. About 100 manufacturing jobs are lost in Rochester. Wollensak, Inc. corporate headquarters move to 7-11 Linden Park in East Rochester, employing 30-35 managerial and engineering positions. Numerous other optical companies, including JML Optical and Optical Gaging Products, subsequently move into the former Wollensak building at 850 Hudson Ave.
1972, July: Wollensak, Inc. liquidates office and industrial equipment at auction in an effort to raise cash.
1972, October 18: Wollensak, Inc. directors vote to file for bankruptcy. The company, unable to deliver on contracts or secure credit with $5.3 million in debt and $1 million in assets, closes all facilities in California, West Virginia, and New York.
1973: Rudolph Novak, President of the Anson Instrument Corporation and a Wollensak Optical Company employee from 1947-1949, purchases the former Wollensak lens plant at 872 Hudson Ave.
1975, May 1: Rudolph Novak announces that he has purchased the Wollensak name, intellectual property, and technical information (optical drawings, etc.) from Kreonite, Inc. of Wichita, Kansas. Novak continues to produce lenses under the name Wollensak Optical, Inc., but documentation of this product range is elusive.
2001, June 27: Rudolph Novak dies at age 81.
2003, October 27: Virginville Lens Co., doing business as Surplus Shed, purchases 872 Hudson Ave and its contents, including Wollensak lenses and assemblies, lens production equipment, and original optical and mechanical drawings.
2005, June 20: Virginville Lens Company applies for, and subsequently registers, the “Wollensak” trademark.
2018, July 27: The former Wollensak building at 872 Hudson Ave is added to the National Register of Historic Places. The building is subsequently approved for adaptive re-use as affordable housing under grants obtained by the Urban League of Rochester Economic Development Corporation. Renovation of the building is completed in mid-2020.
References: The above information is drawn from a variety of sources, primarily the archives of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and Dr. Rudolf Kingslake’s excellent book The Photographic Manufacturing Companies of Rochester, New York. Other sources include Wollensak publications, documents in the Minnesota Historical Society’s 3M collection related to Revere’s 1953 purchase of Wollensak, as well as a short document entitled History of the Wollensak Optical Company (until 1958) in the Trade Literature Collection of the Smithsonian Libraries.