Spencer’s Contributions to Vision Largely Overlooked

Events of Historical Note

By Matt Urtz

(Wampsville, NY – Feb. 2012) Madison County’s history of inventors is long and storied. Patents exist for numerous inventions that have roots in Madison County. Residents of Madison County have had a hand in everything from spinning pitchforks to electron microscopes.

But few inventors have had the impact of Charles Spencer. Spencer’s forward-thinking and vision helped us see the stars.

Spencer was born on Quality Hill (town of Lenox) Sept. 13, 1813, to General Ichabod Spencer and Mary Smith. General Spencer was a Quarter Master for the 74th Infantry during the War of 1812. His desire to work with lenses came at a young age; it is said he made his first lens at the age of 12.

Charles attended local schools before moving on to Cazenovia Academy, Hobart College and Hamilton College. He married Mary Morris Aug. 10, 1838. The couple had six children.

According to advertisements from the time, he opened a business around 1838 developing lenses. His quality and ability were extremely high. By 1848, his lenses were recognized in England and Europe as premiere lenses because he designed a special lens that combines both convex and concave lenses together to give a clearer view. These lenses made him famous in the optical world.

In 1851, he designed a telescope for Hamilton College’s new Litchfield Observatory. The telescope had a lens that was 13.5 inches wide and the telescope was 16-feet long. The observatory was used by famous astronomer Christian Heinrich Friedrich Peters. Peters researched sunspots and discovered a number of new asteroids. The observatory fell into disrepair after Peters left and was torn down in 1919.

Spencer continued making lenses throughout the 1850s and ’60s in Canastota. His small shop in Canastota did a good business, but due to backorders and delays in finishing projects, Spencer never became a wealthy man. His business was destroyed by the fire of 1873 that destroyed some 60-plus homes and businesses.

Spencer lost all of his tools and equipment, many of which were one-of-a-kind made by Spencer himself. He initially tried to rebuild the business, but by 1875 he decided to move on and took a job with the Geneva Optical Works in Geneva making lenses.

The partnership lasted two years.

After his departure, he formed a partnership with two of his sons and a son-in-law; the business was named C.A. Spencer & Sons. The partnership lasted three years until Spencer’s health forced him to retire. On Aug. 10, 1881, Spencer was elected one of the first honorary members of the American Society of Microscopists in honor of his amazing accomplishments and his years of achievements. Spencer died shortly thereafter in Geneva on Sept. 28, 1881. He is buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Canastota.

Sources cited: American President: “Wizard among lens Makers; World has yet to honor Charles A. Spencer for his work.” The Post Standard (Syracuse), May 15, 1904. “Spencer, Charles Achilles.” The National Cyclopedia of American Biography, Vol. XIII, 1906. “Christian Heinrich Friedrich Peters.” National Academies Press. .nap.edu/html/biomems/cpeters.html. “Observatories in the United States.” Harper’s Monthly Magazine, Volume XLIX, June to November 1874.

Matthew Urtz is Madison County Historian. He can be reached at matthew.urtz@co.madison.ny.us, (315) 366-2453 and by becoming a fan of Madison County, NY History on Facebook. For more information, visit madisoncountynyhistory.com.

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