Adolph Lomb: Patronage, Industry and Optics in Early 20th-Century America

Adolph Lomb did not make any major discoveries or publish original works; yet his influence on early 20th century optics was monumental. Reminiscent of the wealthy princes and patrons of the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, he advanced optics by generously supporting the field—and the Society devoted to it.


figureAdolph Lomb, circa 1915.

Most OSA members are familiar with the name Adolph Lomb due to the medal awarded annually by the Optical Society in his name. Some may also know him as a charter member of the Society and the eldest son of Bausch + Lomb Optical Company’s co-founder, Captain Henry Lomb.

But beyond that, details may seem scarce. When we peel back some of the mystery surrounding Lomb, we discover that he was a patron and philanthropist whose support enabled the development of early American optics as well as the fledgling Optical Society of America. Most of the tributes to Lomb—from the award to the library bearing his name—would have embarrassed the shy man. However, they serve as important reminders of his authority in optics at the turn of the century, as well as the role of science and patronage in American society.

A scholar and captain of industry

Lomb was born in 1866, after a period that many historians characterize as the “launching” of American science. He was part of the first generation to come of age with science occupying a central place in American society and everyday life. His evolution into a man of science and industry thus was a product of his age as much as his family circumstance.


figureChildhood home of Adolph Lomb.

Like many others of his generation, Lomb envisioned science to be at the core of progress. As a result, he expanded the opportunities available to him from his father’s position and wealth. These prospects began with his early education. As the elder Lomb headed the sales division of the Bausch + Lomb Optical Company, Adolph spent his boyhood in the bustling center of New York City, as well as a year abroad in Europe in 1878-1879.

His early interest in optics was stimulated by his experiences in the family company after the Lombs moved back to Rochester, N.Y., in 1880. He began on a course of practical education, serving as an apprentice in the various divisions of the B+L factory. There, Lomb became fascinated with the more intricate operations of optics, as well as the complex theories and history behind their application.

Lomb was so invested in his practical education that he delayed his university studies until 1888, when he entered the University of Rochester at age 22. He studied mathematics and physics for two years before transferring to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He earned a degree in mechanical engineering from MIT in 1893. Lomb thoroughly enjoyed his studies and was sent for advanced academic work in theoretical optics at European centers of science: the University of Berlin, the Royal Technical College of Berlin, and the University of Paris.

The additional education not only provided Lomb with an unsurpassed grounding in theoretical and applied optics, but also had benefits for B+L. After his return to the United States around 1897, Lomb officially began work as a B+L employee. He took an interest in management, quickly rising in rank and responsibility.


figureThe Bausch + Lomb family and employees in the early 1890s. (Bottom row, left) Captain Henry Lomb, J.J. Bausch and E.E. Bausch; (top row, left) William Bausch, Henry Lomb, Henry Bausch, Edward Bausch, Carl Lomb, Adolph Lomb and William Drescher.

Although Adolph had not technically been a B+L employee while studying abroad, he spent considerable time in various workshops, including those of the leading optical firm, Carl Zeiss Works in Jena, Germany. The personal relationships he cultivated there were essential in formalizing a later alliance among Carl Zeiss, B+L and Saegmuller in 1908. By 1916, Lomb was assistant secretary of the company and on the board of directors. He would rise to be the first vice president of the company, an office he retained until his death.

Science and a brighter future

As Lomb continued to rise within B+L, American society underwent a transformation that can help us better understand Lomb’s priorities and historical significance. In the wake of the negative consequences of the first industrial revolution—such as pollution and poor working conditions—and widespread popular discontent, a new reforming spirit emerged in the 1890s, launching the Progressive Era in American history.

An early component of this was the shift in American philanthropy—from the vague desire to “do good” to large, well-funded reform movements. Crucial to this change were the captains of American industry, including Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. Carnegie published an essay titled “Gospel of Wealth” in 1889 that laid out the duty of the emerging class of the self-made wealthy. His argument was essentially that the rich are only entrusted with wealth in order to fulfill their moral duty to advance the welfare and happiness of the general public. Carnegie asserted that the best way to do so was through private organizations. So by the dawn of the 20th century, these philanthropic robber barons were establishing large private foundations to enact their philanthropy efficiently.

The Lomb family had been at the forefront of this shift, as Captain Henry Lomb was already using his industrial position to fund philanthropic reforms in Rochester in the 1880s. He not only helped to establish the Rochester Institute of Technology in the 1880s, but he also introduced kindergarten to Rochester public schools and formed institutions of public health in the city. His actions established a model for his two sons on how they should be leaders in business and society, emphasizing social innovation and philanthropy. Adolph continued on this path, dedicating his learning and skills to the responsibilities of citizenship. As a shy individual, he chose the most inconspicuous means to participate in public and social life and to help people.


figureIllustration from Joseph Petzval’s Bericht Über Optische Untersuchungen (1857).


figureLomb’s signature on the title page of his edition of Thoerie und Geschichte des Photographischen Objektivs by Moritz von Rohr (1899).

Adolph’s aims diverged from his father’s because of Adolph’s absolute focus on science as the path towards progress. According to his close confidante and memorialist, James P.C. Southall, Adolph “devoted his life to the advancement of science, in the firm conviction that enlightenment and knowledge went hand in hand with virtue and religion for the promotion of the welfare of mankind.” We can understand then that, for Lomb, scientific and technological developments alone did not define progress. Instead, they were the means towards achieving grander social and political goals. He was dedicated to what historian Leo Marx calls an Enlightenment belief instead of a technocratic concept of progress. To achieve progress, Lomb’s “man of science” had to use his education and knowledge to advance the concerns of humanity. The utilitarian focus comes directly from the Enlightenment in the 18th century, when thinkers emphasized the application of science to everyday life for the benefit of mankind.

By the start of the 20th century, we can clearly see the influence of this vision in the practices of B+L. A pamphlet celebrating the 1908 alliance with Zeiss and Saegmuller proclaimed the new industrial spirit. It stated: “While it does not lose sight of or neglect the success of the individual, aims to subserve the good of mankind as a whole. To give to science the best instruments … is surely to advance the welfare of humanity.” The goals and success of science, industry and mankind were linked together in one monumental project.

Lomb was not alone in his devotion to science. For many in the Progressive Era, science became an enlightened problem-solving tool. Men like Rockefeller and Carnegie emphasized scientific philanthropy. In other words, they envisioned science as pivotal to a reformed America. This required ensuring future scientific experts as well as scientific management. Carnegie, for example, founded the Carnegie Institution of Washington in 1902, to “show the application of knowledge to the improvement of mankind.”

OSA and Lomb’s model for science

Before the U.S. Civil War, the American scientific community had begun to establish core institutions of science as well as professional ideals. But by the 1890s, it entered a new phase of institutionalization, professionalization and specialization funded and led by these philanthropic foundations in what some have deemed a second age of scientific revolution. Philanthropic aims overlapped with the increasing emphasis on and celebration of science in American society in a way particularly suited to Lomb’s views and goals.

One of these new professional, discipline-specific associations was the Optical Society of America. It is not surprising that Lomb was an eager collaborator and charter member of the Society when it was founded in 1916. OSA sought to combine theory and application and become an authority in the emerging area of industrial research. OSA’s aims aligned with Lomb’s focus and work in both theoretical and applied optics, indicating his likely influence in the direction and formation of the Society.

OSA elected Lomb as its first treasurer. He filled that office until his death in 1932, despite initial restrictions to one-term appointments. Yet in most records on the early history of the society, Lomb is barely mentioned. Hilda Kingslake’s in-depth study of OSA in 1966 was one of the few to acknowledge his role. Yet his authority and status is clear when one examines the statements made about him by his contemporaries.

While Lomb’s impact was great, it was often unseen, and the full extent of his patronage is unknown. He was an extremely shy, lifelong bachelor who supported the works of others rather than producing his own. Most information about him comes only second-hand, in particular from his dear friend, physics professor and former OSA President James P.C. Southall. Because Lomb shunned publicity, after his death, Southall took pains to emphasize the man and his deeds. As Southall described him, Lomb was OSA’s own Macaenas: unseen but never unfelt as a patron and advisor.

By surveying OSA’s early records, one can see just how essential Lomb was to the very existence of the society. He not only eagerly gave his time, but he also liberally donated his money. He put his beliefs about the philanthropic value of science into practice through his patronage of OSA as a whole, as well as of individual members and projects. As treasurer, Lomb knew first-hand the usually dire straits of the Society through the 1920s. So he would quietly make up the deficit with his own money. In 1917, he donated over $1,000 in addition to his own dues. This was a large sum of money at the time, equal to the annual salary of most professors.


figureThe UVa Rotunda, which was the original library building at the head of Jefferson’s Academical Village. A collection of Lomb’s volumes is housed at UVa.

During the 1920s, OSA’s annual deficit continued, and Lomb donated somewhere between $2,000 and $3,000 each year. Quite simply, the Society would have gone under without Lomb. Lomb’s beneficence extended to other projects, including the celebrated translation in 1924–1926 of von Helmholtz’s Physiological Optics, which Lomb personally bankrolled after the costs exceeded the original estimate of $10,000.

Lomb regularly made significant contributions to the Society in addition to his other philanthropic activities. His patronage remained consistent during the economic devastation of the Great Depression. His backing was so vital to the organization that OSA formally acknowledged his influence in October 1923, recognizing him as its patron. By the 1940s, three organizations would come to be designated as patrons of OSA. However, Adolph Lomb was the only individual ever to hold that title.

While OSA was not the only scientific organization of which Lomb was a member, it was the one to which he was most dedicated. Fittingly, his last acts were for the association. He literally signed a check for the Society on his deathbed with the help of his younger brother Henry. Although he was a man of industry, he funneled his wealth back into the advancement of science—not for profit, but for the advancement of knowledge. For it was knowledge, he believed, that would help mankind.

(Above) Sample of works in the Adolph Lomb Optical Library housed at the University of Virginia, U.S.A.

The Adolph Lomb Optical Library

The Adolph Lomb Optical Library at the University of Virginia (UVa) is a unique resource for anyone interested in optics. It contains some rare works that are not easily available elsewhere in the United States.

In many ways, it is a reflection of the man whose name it bears. A collection of more than 1,400 volumes at the time it was donated, Lomb’s tastes and interests were the driving force behind the library. Since he was primarily interested in theory, design and construction of optical instruments, the strengths of the collection are in geometrical and applied optics, physiological optics and ophthalmological optics, including optometry.

It includes many original editions of works, copies of key articles, primarily in English, French and German, as well as some works in Latin and other European languages. Lomb’s love for the volumes of his library is visible by the notes in the margins of some works.

Although there is not yet a searchable guide of the contents of the collection, UVa and many other libraries do have a printed copy of The Catalogue of the Adolph Lomb Optical Library, which was published in 1947. Much of the collection, in particular the rare works, is housed in Historical Collections of the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library.

To access works from the Lomb Optical Library, contact the staff through their website

The rest of the collection is spread throughout the UVa library system, so it is best to search through the online catalog Virgo, found at

Building a mecca for optics

Lomb’s other great love was his optics library, collected by him and his brother since their youth. When he died suddenly from pneumonia in 1932 without a will, his brother Henry sought to honor Adolph’s memory by donating their library in his name to a university. Entrusting the collection to an institution suited the progressive and philanthropic example set by their father, as well as Adolph’s own Enlightenment understanding of progress through science.

At the time of his death, it was recognized as the first library of its kind in the United States and the finest collection of works on modern optics. Henry had wanted to fulfill his brother’s legacy and vision by creating a “mecca to which students of optics would come from all parts of the United States.” Southall suggested his own alma mater, the University of Virginia (UVa), as the ideal spot because of its geographic location, giving increased and equal access to students of optics in both the North and the South. He also knew of both Lomb brothers’ admiration for UVa’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, an Enlightenment figure who had been dedicated to science and the progress of man.

The donation of the library to UVa was quickly arranged, and it was officially presented to the Physics Library during the 1933–1934 academic session. Henry had intended to set aside funds to endow the library in order to keep it up-to-date, but he died suddenly in 1934. Support for the library then fell primarily to Southall, as OSA had decided to honor the memory of Lomb rather by saving funds for the medal bearing his name.

Southall continued through the 1940s to promote the library in hopes of gaining publicity and therefore funding for its support. An article in Science in May 1945 detailed that the library had already declined in the past decade because it lacked an endowment. Indeed, the whole purpose of publishing the catalogue of the library in 1947 was to advertise the library’s holdings with the hope of gaining funds to maintain and develop the collection as the Lomb brothers would have desired. Unfortunately, it seems that once those who had personally known Lomb died, so too did the support for his collection of optics books. The library’s invisibility by the second half of the 20th century also sadly mirrors that of Adolph himself.

Many of the works mentioned in this catalogue are no longer in UVa’s possession—a fact that underscores the continued problems of the unendowed library, as well as the more general challenges raised in the age of digitalization.

Visions of progress

Lomb’s Enlightenment belief in progress through science persists. Although recent history has revealed the risk in holding absolute faith in science, modern industrialized society still privileges science as the means of all knowledge and progress. Science, though, is not only a creation of those whose names are recorded as inventors and authors. Lomb’s life exemplifies the collaborative nature of scientific production, and his historical collection is his enduring legacy. By bringing this quiet man from the shadows and throwing open the doors of his collection, we can better understand the past and inspire future scholars.

Special thanks to the staff at the archives of Bausch + Lomb and to Historical Collections, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, UVa Library.

Victoria N. Meyer ( is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of history at East Tennessee State University, U.S.A., and a UVa alumna.

References and Resources

  • Bausch + Lomb Optical Company. A Triple Alliance in Optics, B+L, Rochester, N.Y. (1908).

  • C.E. Fitch. Encyclopedia of Biography of New York, Volume 5, American Historical Society (1916).

  • I.G. Priest. Science, 53, 318 (1921).

  • J.P.C. Southall. UVa Alumni News, 32, 2 (1943).

  • H. Kingslake. JOSA 56, 273 (1966).

  • S.G. Kohlstedt. The Formation of the American Scientific Community, University of Illinois Press (1976).

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Adolph Lomb: Patronage, Industry and Optics in Early 20th-Century America

Adolph Lomb did not make any major discoveries or publish original works; yet his influence on early 20th century optics was monumental. Reminiscent of the wealthy princes and patrons of the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, he advanced optics by generously supporting the field—and the Society devoted to it.

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