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A. Jaegers Optical Corporation--A personal recollection

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A. Jaegers Optical Corporation - A personal recollection

Stephen L. Nightingale

For many teenagers in the 1960’s, an after-school or summer job meant….  MacDonald’s! As a teenage amateur astronomer and telescope nut, I had the perfect job - working for Al Jaegers at A. Jaegers Optical Corporation from 1968 to 1970.

I’ve been hooked on astronomy for about as long as I can remember.  I still have a vivid memory of visiting a classmate when I was in third grade (the year was 1959); he brought me up to his attic to show me something really “neat.” There in a beautifully fitted cedar box was a gleaming white refractor with all the eyepieces and various gadgets - perhaps a Unitron? In any case, I must have stared at that thing for 10 minutes. I had to have one someday! Can you imagine? You point this thing at outer space, and you can see planets, galaxies, double stars, and nebulae. It couldn’t be true!

How many of us ogled these ads?

My first opportunity to actually look through a telescope occurred a couple years later. I was walking home from a friend’s house shortly after dark and there on a street corner was a teenager looking through a small refractor, probably a 60 mm. He invited me for a look - Saturn and its rings, tiny but as sharp as could be. I became addicted to astronomy and telescopes.

When I reached tenth grade I became a “black hole” for any information I could get about astronomy and telescopes; I started grinding mirrors when I got home from school, and during the winter of 1967 bought my first telescope, the venerable Criterion RV-6. Remember the price, $194.95? Of course, I soaked up all the ads in Sky and Telescope magazine - especially those of “A. Jaegers Optics -The Glass House.” The company was located in Lynbrook, Long Island; I lived a couple towns away.

One day in the spring of 1968 I asked my Dad to drive me there to purchase a war surplus Erfle eyepiece for my RV-6; I still have it. The optics factory (and warehouse, small showroom, and offices) was located at 691S Merrick Road in Lynbrook. It was a large, plain grayish green building, looking more like a large barn than anything else. I recall “A. Jaegers” was painted in small white letters on the side of the building. Upon opening the front door I was immediately struck by the great smell of optical pitch. If you went straight through a pair of swinging doors you were in the optical shop; I made a left and walked up a long set of creaky stairs to get to the offices and small showroom. There were a couple glass cases with various items and I recall two secretaries worked in the back typing up orders, etc.

During the summer of 1968 (I was now 17) my obsession with astronomy continued. Needing a summer/weekend/after school job, I thought why not try Jaegers? Making my way up the creaky stairs again, Al Jaegers Sr. sat me down in his office. He explained to me that he would give me a job, but on the condition that I understood that my school work came first and he expected me to keep my grades up. What a wonderful, nice man. He had a somewhat fidgety and nervous nature - he was always on the move, and had a tendency to mumble to himself incessantly. At this point, he had no knowledge of my interest in astronomy and telescopes.

The author, soon to be Jaeger’s newest employee, 1968

On my first day I was shown how to use the collating machine, stapling catalogues and putting address labels on them for mailing. (By the way, if anyone has a catalogue from those days (yellow cover) I’d love to obtain one). The front of the catalogue referred to the company as “A. Jaegers Optics” while the back of the catalogue referred to “A. Jaegers Optical Corp.”  Ads in Sky and Telescope magazine simply referred to “Jaegers.” Over time I was responsible for picking, wrapping, and shipping ordered items and other relatively menial tasks. By the way, as I described earlier, the building was quite old and didn’t appear to be in very good shape. Many years later when it was destroyed in a fire, I wasn’t particularly surprised.

When the opportunity presented itself I would ask “Mr. Jaegers” about optics -“Why do you use barnesite instead of cerium oxide to polish?” “Do you test your mirrors with a Foucault tester?” “How do you decide when the polish is done?”, etc. Soon enough he was inviting me to eat lunch with him in his office to “talk optics” and I felt like quite the big shot! We worked together on laying out those double page ads featured in Sky and Telescope although I don’t recall them changing very much over the years.

As an aside, Edmund Scientific was Jaegers chief competition. Al gave me the impression that he and Norman Edmund were good friends and they cooperated on a few ventures.

One day he asked me if I’d be interested in working in the optics fabrication shop. Would I? You bet I would!

The guys that worked in the optics shop were quite a crew. The adjacent town (Rockville Center) had a substantial population of recent Cuban émigrés fleeing Castro’s rule and Al employed perhaps ten or so to work in his optical shop. I don’t know if they had previous experience with optics or learned on the job. In any case they were very good, spoke very little English, and were a hilarious group of friendly, funny guys. One fun memory: there was a large van that would bring them to work, and drive them home at the end of the day. One day as the shop was closing the van failed to show up. Al asked me if I could drive them home; I brought my Dad’s ’69 Pontiac Firebird to work that day (basically a two-seater with a tiny bench seat in the rear). We managed to stuff about seven of the guys into the car, sitting on laps, etc., and off we went! I imagine that anyone watching them pile out of the car must have thought the Ringling Brothers Circus clown car had gotten lost.

They weren’t above having a little fun at my expense. One day Al put me on a bank of eight polishing machines, polishing out small (2 inch?) lenses. As the lenses passed back and forth over the pitch laps, I watched with a great feeling of satisfaction. A couple of my Cuban friends smiled at me, at each other, and shook their heads. All of a sudden one lens seized on the lap, and “BANG”, came loose from the pivot arm and sailed across the room. Next, “BANG.” Another “BANG!” One of the guys hit some kind of emergency kill switch.

Turns out that instead of just standing there with a brush, a jar of barnesite slurry, and a dumb look on my face, I was supposed to actually APPLY the barnesite to the laps to keep them lubricated and polishing - looking back it seemed pretty clear that my friends knew what was going to happen and “threw me under the bus!” Being a fairly experienced amateur glass pusher I had no excuse. Evidently I became somewhat hypnotized by my first experience using those machines.

I’ll never forget what happened next. I looked up and Al was storming down the stairs to find out what the hell was going on. He looked at me, then the Cubans, then the broken mess surrounding me.

Well, I guess this is it; I figured this job was nice while it lasted and I could probably get pretty good at saying “You want fries with that?”

Turns out it wasn’t my time to lose my first job. He started laughing so hard he had trouble breathing. As I said previously - a very nice man, patient, and with a great sense of humor. On a couple occasions some fairly serious fights broke out between a couple of the workers (I won’t go into details except to say hammers were involved, not good around optics); Al would grab them, drag them upstairs to his office to straighten them out and send them back to work. It was similar to going to the principal’s office.

Over the next few months I was accepted to Colgate University (I still have the ad they placed in Sky and Telescope -“Offering undergraduates a degree in Astrogeophysics”, which became my major) and during my senior year in high school I continued to work at Jaegers after school and on weekends. I worked with Al’s son (Al Jaeger Jr.) cleaning and refurbishing war surplus elbow telescopes and other various jobs - rough grinding 8-inch blanks, etc. By the way, we ground and polished all the mirror blanks at the factory and they were sent out to someone to be figured.

I was working after school one day in late May 1969, when Al called everyone up to the main packing area to make an announcement. “Today is Steve Nightingale’s 18th birthday. I’m closing the shop early so we can celebrate!”  The tables used for packing orders were cleared, and bottles of scotch, bourbon, and soda were put out. Everyone had fun drinking to my health and future (and presumably an hour off from work). At that point in my life I don’t think I’d ever had hard liquor. Al saw me headed toward the scotch, and gave me a long look, and slowly moved his head from side to side. “No.” Sure, the party was for me - sort of!

The “Flagship product” that Jaegers was most noted for was the 6-inch refractor objective, offered in various focal lengths, mounted in cells or unmounted. All six-inch lenses were anti-reflection coated.

Portion of Jaegers advertisement, Sky and telescope magazine, May 1969

I would like to share what I recall about the production of these lenses. As a disclaimer, I’ll do my best to be accurate, but I am basing this recollection on memories that are over forty years old.

Al had two senior opticians working with him; I recall their names being “Joe” and “Frank.” Whenever the “six inchers” were assembled, prepared for the coater, etc., these two men seemed to be responsible.

I believe they were all ground and polished at the Jaegers plant in Lynbrook, but I don’t recall being present when this was done. In spite of the advertised claims, I’m not aware of any hand figuring being done; rather, they were assembled, and then tested on a “pass/fail” basis. Al did the testing himself, and let me watch him do the testing on a couple occasions.

The testing area was in a cool unused section of the basement. He had a USAF resolution chart at one end of the room, and it appeared that he simply used the resolution chart to decide to either pass the lens, or re-work it. I do recall that re-work sometimes involved changing spacer thickness and some also would be sent back for repolishing. Lenses that were accepted were then sent out for coating; then re-assembled and (I believe) retested.

Again, I don’t believe any hand figuring was done - but that may depend on your definition of “hand figuring.” Most of us have an impression of hand figuring which involves correcting zones with custom designed laps to solve a particular problem; maybe even a little rouge on the thumb to bring down a high spot. Assuming unacceptable lenses were simply given additional polishing time, and tested again, would that qualify as “hand figuring”? Perhaps. In fairness, we need to remember that at that time questionable and exaggerated claims seemed to be standard in the industry - it was common for mirror makers to claim “+/- 1/20 wave accuracy” without explaining what those claims meant, or how they were determined.

Note the wave ratings…they really knew how to make mirrors back in those days!


So that’s it, lenses were passed based on a visual examination of a USAF resolution chart and passed at Al’s discretion. It appeared to me that Al was quite particular, but I’m not qualified to judge whether or not this method of testing would pass muster today.

Roland Christen has posted that in his experience, Jaegers objectives were not consistent. He mentioned one in his possession being a very good 1/10 wave PV, while he knows of another that is 1 wave PV at best. Some seemed to be badly zoned. Apparently, the F15’s tended to be most problematic. One further observation; Roland suggested that part of the inconsistency may be due to a high turn over of opticians. I was only at Jaegers for three years (1968-1970), but I believe that during this period Al’s two senior opticians were always there, and I had the sense they’d been working there for quite a while.

I don’t know when Al stopped playing an active role in lens production, and how that may have affected the quality of the objectives deemed acceptable.

Some final thoughts. By my second year in college I’d stopped working at Jaegers and lost contact with the folks there. Al’s health was not particularly good, and I suspect he did not have an active role much longer although Tony Pirera, owner of Spectrum Thin Films, recalls Al being present when he worked at Jaegers in the late 1970’s. The two senior opticians were also getting along in years, and also most likely didn’t work there too much longer. In the 1980’s a fire destroyed the facility, and at the current time some of their remaining inventory is available through retailers such as “Surplus Shed.” But the Jaegers Optical I remember from the 60’s is long gone. My time there was fun and interesting and I have great memories.

Oh yes…remember that refractor I admired so much in 1959? I’m glad to report I now have two…

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