john dolland painted by benjamin wilson

The Dollond family

john dolland painted by benjamin wilson
John Dollond by Benjamin Wilson “John Dollond, by Benjamin Wilson” by Benjamin Wilson; Benjamin Wilson – Royal Museums Greenwich. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Just over 150 years ago, British optician and inventor George Dollond died. His passing marked the demise of his family’s century-old instrument-making business. The story of the Dollond enterprise starts with John Dollond (left), who was born in 1706. His father was involved in silk weaving, and John picked up that trade. Because his father died when John was young, John’s formal education was cut short. He managed to teach himself Greek and Latin, and various branches of science and mathematics. Astronomy was a dear hobby, and optics – that science so necessary for astronomy – was an area of particular amateur interest for him.

John Dollond’s son Peter was born in 1730. At first, he worked at silk weaving with his father, but in 1750 he quit the silk business and opened an optician’s shop in Kennington, London. After two years, his father gave up the silk trade, too, and joined Peter.

John Dollond was a brilliant theorist and experimenter. His greatest achievement, by far, was the invention of the achromatic lens. For a century, it had been believed that all lenses – and therefore all telescopes – caused some degree of colour distortion. John Dollond first showed how to compensate for those distortions, and then demonstrated how they could be altogether eliminated, disproving one of Isaac Newton’s theories of optics. The first telescopes without colour distortions were produced in the Dollond shops.

Peter Dollond lacked theoretical knowledge, but he had enormous practical skill. In his workshop, he designed and built precision devices for astronomy and celestial navigation. He produced countless refracting and reflecting telescopes and, with his father, built three-foot-long telescopes that could do the work of older telescopes that were 45 feet long. When John Dollond died in 1761, Peter Dollond took on his brother as a partner. When that brother died, Peter Dollond started working with his nephew, George Huggins, who changed his name to George Dollond.

George Dollond, born in 1774, had both his uncle’s mechanical skill and his grandfather’s grasp of theory. He built numerous precision astronomical instruments with exacting attention to detail. He also invented an “atmospheric recorder” by which continuous measurements of temperature, wind, rainfall, humidity, pressure and other weather data were printed on rolls of paper. After Peter Dollond died in 1820, George Dollond ran the family business until his own death, on 13 May 1852, which marked the end of the remarkable Dollond century.