Sunday 17 March 2024

Second Edition - Brass and Glass: Optical Instruments and Their Makers

The second edition of Brass and Glass: Optical Instruments and Their Makers is now available. It is an encyclopaedia of optical instruments, and the individuals and companies, from the earliest to the end of the 20th century, who have made them. Considerably updated, corrected, and expanded on the first edition, it contains over 3000 alphabetical entries, including:

Optical instrument makers and brands
Navigation instruments
Scientific instruments
Surveying instruments
Military optical ordnance
Laboratory & educational instruments
Medical instruments
Optical terminology

There are appendices containing information on selected related subjects such as optical glass and eyepiece designs.

The inspiration for the book came from my interests in stargazing, photography, microscopy and bird-watching. I began to take an interest in classic and vintage telescopes, microscopes, binoculars and cameras, as well as other optical instruments. I found the lack of reference material frustrating - I would see an interesting looking vintage telescope at auction, but to find out more about the maker I would have to buy extraordinarily expensive reference books, many of which are out of print. Further, the information I sought was frequently scattered around multiple sources, and time-consuming to collate. I wanted an affordable, simple, encyclopaedic reference in which I could find the name of the maker or optical instrument and a concise, but informative article about them. This book is my attempt to remedy that gap in the literature.

Since the invention of the telescope and the microscope in the early seventeenth cetury there have been countless makers of optical instruments. It would be impossible to include an entry for every one of them. However, it is intended that makers of note should be included, as well as most of the makers the reader might encounter when perusing an auction or boot fair.

A table of contents for the first edition may be found here.

Sunday 12 February 2023

The History of Scientific Instruments: Book Recommendations on the Theme

If you're interested in old scientific instruments, you can visit museums, you can buy interesting instruments at auction, or you can browse antique shops and fairs. But if you want to know about the history or their development, and the people who made them, you can do no better than reading a good book on the subject.

There are plenty of books to choose from, so which are the best? I've picked five books that I consider to be some of the best on the subject, and I'm pleased to be featured again on the excellent book discovery website,, where you can find my recommendations, and my reasons for recommending the books, here. You can also browse books by topic or author, and you can explore themed booksheves, where you can find author recommendations on a theme such as science or physics.

If you have a particular interest in optical instruments and the people who made them, take a look at Brass and Glass: Optical Instruments and Their Makers.

This is an encyclopaedia of optical instruments, and the individuals and companies who have made them, from the earliest to the end of the 20th century. It contains over 2000 alphabetical entries, including:

Optical instrument makers and brands; Telescopes; Binoculars; Microscopes; Cameras; Navigation instruments; Surveying instruments; Military optical ordnance; Laboratory & educational instruments; Scientific Instruments; Optical terminology.

There are appendices containing information on selected related subjects such as optical glass and eyepiece designs.

Whether your interest is as a collector, curator, or historian, or simple curiosity, this book is a valuable resource.

Wednesday 25 January 2023

The Dangers of Discovering New Worlds: Science Fiction Book Recommendations on the Theme


I'm thrilled to be featured again on the excellent book discovery website - this time I'm sharing my recommendations for science fiction on the theme of the dangers of discovering new worlds.

You'll also find that has plenty of bookshelves for you to browse and, in each one, multiple authors share their themed recommendations on topics such as The best dystopia books, The best books on extraterrestrial life, and many more.

While we're on this theme, in Galactic Alliance: Betrayal, Daniel discovers that the Galactic Alliance is plotting to take over Earth and subject humanity to brutal, dehumanising slavery. He becomes separated from Ruth by astropirates, and is torn between saving her and warning the sceptical Earth governments of the impending danger. Their adventure leads them both to worlds they never knew existed, and into grave danger, plunging them into the heart of the biggest conflict in Earth's history.

Monday 16 January 2023

Societal control of the human body: Science fiction book recommendations on the theme


If you’re looking for reading recommendations, the book discovery site is a great place to find them. Shepherd is a rich platform offering book suggestions around a topic, theme or mood, as recommended by numerous authors.

I’m pleased to have been featured on their site with my recommendations for science fiction books on the theme of societal control of the human body.

My book on this theme, An Accident of Birth is a dystopian novel that explores how society might respond if human fertility were to decline to the point where only few people are born fertile. I discussed my inspiration for writing this book in a previous post When Evolution Fails Us - A Tale of Declining Fertility.

If you wish to find more dystopian fiction, why not try the bookshelf The best dystopia books, where you will find enough recommendations to keep you going for a very long time. 


Saturday 7 January 2023

When Evolution Fails Us - A Tale of Declining Fertility

What if, in a future generation, human fertility has dwindled to the point that fertility is a rare gift – so unusual that it is considered to be a lucky accident of birth?

Every species has a natural drive to survive and reproduce. It is one of our most basic instincts and, let's face it, without that instinct, humankind wouldn't exist today. We fight for survival, and we love to reproduce.

Indeed, in many sectors of human society, couples who choose to remain childless are thought to be failing in their responsibility. This attitude, however dubious, is driven by primal instinct, not reason.

In recent years, studies have revealed some sobering facts. It seems that every generation of men is, on average, less fertile than its predecessor. We may be growing taller and bigger, but we're not as good at making babies.

The news reports which highlight this issue focus on the generation to generation decline in fertility, but do little to speculate on where it will lead. The reports generally measure fertility in terms of how many children are produced per couple. If the average is less than two then the population is declining. This is frequently couched in terms of how many children are produced per woman, which is a curiously flawed way to view it.

We have to look a little harder to find reports which talk about the biological ability of a couple to reproduce, rather than the choices they make. Many articles about female fertility focus on how many children a woman has, rather than her biological ability to bear children. On the subject of men, however, the literature is more forthcoming.

It seems that every generation of men is less biologically capable of reproduction than the last. According to a 1992 study1, “... data on semen quality collected systematically from reports published world-wide indicate clearly that sperm density has declined appreciably during 1938-90, although we cannot conclude whether or not this decline is continuing.

That uncertainty was put to rest by a research paper in 20172, which concluded that “… sperm counts whether measured by SC or TSC declined significantly among men from North America, Europe and Australia during 1973–2011, with a 50–60% decline among men unselected by fertility, with no evidence of a ‘leveling off’ in recent years.” (SC is sperm concentration, and TSC is total sperm count).

That's pretty scary. If we were to take this to its logical conclusion, the end result could be catastrophic for humanity.

So, why is this happening? According to the Infertility Centre of St Louis3, “The human male is known to have the worst sperm count of any mammalian species, with the exception of the gorilla, possibly because the fragile location of these sperm production genes lies on the Y chromosome. The process of recombination "repairs" chromosomes. Since genes on the Y do not recombine, the chromosome degenerates. Thus, the Y chromosome — which makes the male a male — deteriorates with each succeeding generation. It is not a very safe place for sperm production genes.

There's plenty of evidence, also, that lifestyle choices of parents, such as obesity and smoking, can have a serious adverse effect the offspring's fertility.

If men’s biological fertility is declining, what about women? Information on this is hard to find. There is evidence that the number of children born through IVF is increasing significantly. This, however, could represent trends in lifestyle choices, or other factors. Whether it has anything to do with trends in the biological fertility of women is unclear.

In today's society, the majority of people are fertile, and the infertile are usually thought of as the unlucky ones, but will that change? Fifty generations from now, will we be frantically trying to find ways to secure the future of the human race?

What will society look like if fertility becomes a rarity? Will fertile people still be considered lucky when the rest of society depends on them to propagate the species? In such a scenario, would a fertile person be allowed to choose not to have children? How would genetic diversity be maintained to avoid the birth defects which result from inbreeding? How would the population be maintained?

In today's society most of us think we’re free, but are we really? We are subject to a profusion of laws, most of which we don't know about and wouldn't understand if we did. Further, we are subject to social pressures and taboos which greatly influence every aspect of our lives. Still, most of us are born “free”, and spend most of our lives believing ourselves to be so.

But what if some of us were born with a biological attribute that made us a rarity? Something with a special value to society that would result in people treating as a resource; a commodity. Something to trade in. If fertility were rare, would those lucky few be the victims or the benefactors of this accident of birth?

Would they be treated as childbearing royalty or breeding slaves? Would they be able to choose a partner because they loved them, or would they be forced into breeding with carefully selected, genetically compatible partners? Would their lives be dominated by social pressures or statutory rules? Would surrogacy be a choice, a lucrative contract between fertile people and their clients, or would it be state controlled?

Would there be a black market; a criminal underworld, trading in the fertility of the few? Would supporting industries spring up? How about services for fertile people who wish to escape the bonds of their condition?

These questions are not easy to answer. At present, how society might respond to such changes is no more than speculation. Nonetheless, if and when it comes, we will have to respond, one way or another.

However we set about tackling the problems posed by increasing infertility, conflict is bound to arise. People with differing beliefs and value systems will also have differing ideas on how to deal with the problem. Whatever solution is chosen, there will inevitably be those who don't accept it.

Would that lead to social unrest? Quite possibly. Large scale differences of public opinion on emotive subjects often do. Will it change the face of politics? The world of politics is there to serve the greater social interest (or so it should be), and what greater interest than the survival of the species?

We don't really know how long it will take for dwindling fertility to become a threat to the future of humankind, or indeed, whether it ever will, but one thing is clear. The trend towards diminished fertility raises some difficult social questions.

For now, we have to rely on works of speculative fiction, such as An Accident of Birth, for answers to these questions.


NOTE: This is an update to an article first published on this blog in 2012.


[1] Carlsen E, Giwercman A, Keiding N, Skakkebaek NE. Evidence for decreasing quality of semen during past 50 years. BMJ. 1992 Sep 12;305(6854):609-13. doi: 10.1136/bmj.305.6854.609. PMID: 1393072; PMCID: PMC1883354.

[2] Levine H, Jørgensen N, Martino-Andrade A, Mendiola J, Weksler-Derri D, Mindlis I, Pinotti R, Swan SH. Temporal trends in sperm count: a systematic review and meta-regression analysis. Hum Reprod Update. 2017 Nov 1;23(6):646-659. doi: 10.1093/humupd/dmx022. PMID: 28981654; PMCID: PMC6455044.



Tuesday 8 February 2022

Book Review: At The Sign of The Orrery.

At the Sign of the Orrery: The Origins of the Firm Cooke, Troughton & Simms, Ltd.

by E. Wilfred Taylor and J. Simms Wilson

The publication date is not given in the book. However, the latest events referred to in the text were in 1959, predating the renaming of the firm to Vickers in 1962. The book is believed to have been published either shortly after the events of 1959, or during the 1960s.

About the authors: James Simms Wilson was Managing Director, and later Joint Managing Director of Cooke, Troughton and Simms from 1924 until his retirement in 1956. Edward Wilfred Taylor joined the firm when he left school, and retired as Joint Managing Director also in 1956. For more information about the Simms family, and Edward Wilfred Taylor, see Reference 1.

Note: Since the current copyright status of this book and its images is not known, I have only used low resolution reproductions of the images.

At the Sign of the Orrery gives details of the careers of a number of mathematical instrument makers. These are: John Worgan, John Rowley, Thomas Wright, Benjamin Cole – father and son, and the three founding families of Cooke, Troughton and Simms.

The connection between the earlier makers, according to the authors, was that they had the sign of The Orrery in their trading address – hence the title. There is the suggestion that the addresses, although varying in name, are the same shop. The authors do, however, state: ‘Our story opens in a little shop “Under the Dial of St. Dunstan’s Church in Fleet Street, London’ in the year 1688, and two of the connecting links being of a circumstantial character can hardly be regarded as proved. Thereafter to the present day every link in the chain can be supported by evidence’.

Thee mathematical instrument makers are:

John Worgan2,3,5#451: Mathematical instrument maker, trading Under the Dial of St. Dunstan’s Church, Fleet Street, London, and specialising in surveying instruments and dials. He was freed of the Grocers’ Company in 1682, and records place him working in Fleet Street between 1685 and at least 1700, as well as Fetter Lane in 1693. A Gunther’s quadrant made by John Worgan is in the Science Museum, London. Other examples of his work include compass dials and circumferentors. According to the authors, his premises were taken over by John Rowley. However, while this is confirmed in Reference 3, some doubt is cast by References 2 and 5 since, according to a print dated 1737, there were six or seven shops Under St. Dunstan’s Church, of which the westernmost shop was immediately under the Dial.

John Rowley1,2,5#507: Mathematical instrument maker of London. He was freed of the Broderers’ Company in 1690, and worked in Threadneedle Street, London until 1702 when he is recorded as trading at The Globe, Under St. Dunstan’s Church, Fleet Street. This, according to the authors, is likely to be the same address as Under the Dial of St. Dunstan’s Church, previously vacated by John Worgan. Instruments bearing John Rowley’s name include drawing instruments, pocket dials, artillery scales, dialling spheres, Gunther’s quadrants, globes, planetaria, levels, sextants, and a standard length. He also played a major role in the development of planetary system models, known as orreries. Many instruments bearing John Rowley’s name were to be found in the collection of Charles Boyle, fourth Earl of Orrery (1676-1731), which he bequeathed to Christ Church, Oxford. John Rowley was succeeded in business by his ex-apprentice and employee Thomas Wright.

Thomas Wright1,2,6#143: Mathematical instrument maker of London. He served his apprenticeship with John Rowley, and was freed of the Broderers’ Company in 1715. He started his career working for Rowley, and by 1720 he was trading at the Orrery and Globe, Fleet Street, having succeeded John Rowley in business. According to the authors ‘In the midsummer quarter of 1718 Wright moved to what later became No. 136 Fleet Street, opposite Water Lane, where he continued to work under the sign of the Orrery and Globe until his retirement in favour of Benjamin Cole in 1748…’ According to Reference 2, his address in 1747 was Orrery & Globe next the Globe & Marlborough Head Tavern in Fleet Street. It is entirely possible, and indeed likely, that The Globe, the address occupied by John Rowley’s business, was renamed Orrery & Globe following Rowley’s involvement in the development of orreries, and the existence of many of his instruments in the Earl of Orrery’s collection. Thomas Wright was succeeded in business by his employee, Benjamin Cole.

Benjamin Cole1,2,5#492,6#26,7: This section of the book talks about the father and son, referred to as Benjamin Cole (I) and Benjamin Cole (II) in Reference 1. Benjamin Cole (I) was a mathematical, philosophical and optical instrument maker. He served his apprenticeship with William Cade, and was freed of the Merchant Taylors’ Company in 1719. He worked for Thomas Wright, whom he succeeded in business. He traded at several addresses in London, including The Grand Orrery, Poppings Court, Fleet Street, and The Orrery, next to the Globe Tavern, Fleet Street. His son, Benjamin Cole (II) served his apprenticeship with Benjamin (I), after which they worked together as Cole and Son. Benjamin (II) continued the business under his own name following the death of his father, trading at The Orrery, next to the Globe Tavern, 136 Fleet Street. Note the introduction of a street number. Benjamin Cole (II) was succeeded in business by John Troughton.

John Troughton1,2,3,4 (c1739-1807) served his apprenticeship with his uncle, also named John Troughton, and was freed of the Grocers’ Company in 1764. Among his own apprentices was his brother, Edward Troughton. They traded together as J&E Troughton, and in 1782 John purchased the business of Benjamin Cole (II), and began to trade from the same address At the Sign of the Orrery, 136 Fleet Street.

The book continues with the stories and businesses of the families of the three founders of the firms that eventually merged to become Cooke, Troughton and Simms – Edward Troughton1,2,3,4,7 (1753-1835), William Simms1,2,4,6#1430 (1793-1860), and Thomas Cooke1,4,6#1515,7 (1807-1868).

As mentioned earlier, not all of the claims or implications made in At the Sign of the Orrery are verifiable. By way of correction, or errata, Anita McConnell4 points out there is not a proven connection between either John Worgan or John Rowley and the Troughtons. Also that the claim on p27 that the King of Denmark awarded a ‘Special Gold Medal’ to Edward Troughton has not been verified. And finally she points out that William Simms was not apprenticed to Bennett, as stated on p31.

For an account of the lives and careers of the instrument makers mentioned in this article, and many more, please see Reference 1.


1: Brass and Glass: Optical Instruments and Their Makers. Tony Benson. 2021.

2: Directory of British Scientific Instrument Makers 1550-1851. Gloria Clifton. Zwemmer, London 1995.

3: Mathematical Instrument Makers in the Grocers’ Company 1688-1800. Joyce Brown. Science Museum, London 1979.

4: Instrument Makers to the World: A History of Cooke, Troughton & Simms. Anita McConnell. William Sessions Ltd., York, England for University of York 1992.

5: The Mathematical Practitioners of Tudor and Stuart England 1485-1714. E.G.R. Taylor. Cambridge 1954.

6: The Mathematical Practitioners of Hanoverian England 1714-1840. E.G.R. Taylor. Cambridge 1966.

7: Making Scientific Instruments in the Industrial Revolution. A.D. Morrison-Low. Routledge 2016.

All content is © copyright Tony Benson. Images may be subject to copyright.

Thursday 9 December 2021

Francesca’s Bookshelf: The Common Muse: An Anthology of Popular British Ballad Poetry XVth – XXth Centuries

You may remember from my earlier blog posts that Francesca loves to collect old books of ballads and songs. In fact, with all the necessities of life taken care of, and book collecting as her only real hobby, it’s all she has to spend her allowance on. It’s unsurprising that her collection contains numerous old and very interesting books.

Today, Francesca is browsing The Common Muse: An Anthology of Popular British Ballad Poetry XVth – XXth Centuries. Edited by V. de Sola Pinto & A.E. Rodway. This first edition was published by Chatto & Windus, London in 1957. The objective of the editors was given on the front flyleaf of the dustjacket. The dustjacket is missing from many copies of this book, so I have reproduced the editors’ objectives below for you (click to enlarge it). From this, you would expect the book to contain a wealth of old popular poetry, songs and ballads, and you would not be disappointed.

There is a 29-page introduction, which begins with the words: ‘Though many of our greatest poets knew, used and imitated street songs and ballads, in modern times it is mainly the political and social historians and antiquaries who have so far paid serious attention to them. Literary critics and historians dismiss them as “doggerel” or “journalism in verse”. What was good enough for Shakespeare, apparently, is no longer good enough for us.’

The introduction goes on to give a critical analysis of the genre of songs and ballads in poetry from mediaeval times to the 20th century. The authors discuss varying perceptions of the literary and moral value of these works, at the same time highlighting the wide range of subject and style, from bawdy to romantic, from historical to social commentary. They acknowledge that while the preservation of mediaeval verse can be attributed to broadsheet1 publications, they also owe a debt to ‘folk memory’, since the earliest songs and ballads were composed and sung by minstrels, many of them itinerant, and passed on by word of mouth rather than printing. The critical analysis is an engaging read for anyone with an interest in this kind of poetry.

Following the introduction, the book is structured in two parts. Part I: General has subsections Historical; Social Criticism; Manners and Fashions; Soldiers, Sailors, Highwaymen and Poachers; Portents and Prodigies; Crime and Punishment; Religion. Part II: Amatory has subsections Rural; Urban; Vocational; Clerical; Marital; Wise and Foolish Virgins. As is apparent, this collection contains a rich variety of interesting songs and ballads. Each subsection is prefaced by a delightful woodblock print, and contains a number of songs or ballads.

After browsing for a while, Francesca finds herself reading a song called Don’t Be Foolish Pray.

Young Hodge met Mog the miller’s maid
Who long his suite denied,
And half inclined and half afraid,
Scratched his rough head and cried:-
‘Now Molly while I love you so,
Why still our joys delay,
Come dang it, to the parson go,
And don’t be foolish pray.’

Sweet Moggy with an artful blush
That sham’d the rose’s hue,
Looked round, and cried to Hodge ‘hush hush
Speak softly, softly do:
We shall be overheard I know,
The mill don’t work to day
Be quiet, Hodge my hand let go,
Now don’t be foolish pray.’

Poor Hodge, thus chid, at a stand,
And cried,-‘Well then, good bye,
I’se go to give to Sue my hand,
Since thee do cast off I.’
‘Me cast you off’, cries Moggy ‘no,
The mill don’t work to day;
And so dear Hodge, to church let’s go,
And don’t be foolish pray.’

Francesca rather likes the idea of a blush that shames the rose’s hue, but she’s not quite sure of the wisdom behind Molly’s initial refusal of Hodge’s hand. Perhaps Molly is toying with him. Would Francesca do such a thing herself? She doesn’t really want to have to answer that question.

The song was recorded by the brilliant folk-singer/guitarist Nic Jones on his album Ballads and Songs in 1970. If you’re not familiar with his work I highly recommend you get the album for this, and the other wonderful songs and ballads on it. As a tune for this song he used a part of the tune The Merry Merry Milkmaids from The Dancing Master by John Playford (published in a number of editions from 1651 to about 1728). He also altered the words a little to scan with the tune.

In the sleeve notes for Ballads and Songs, Nic Jones wrote, ‘The printed broadsides are often accused of stunting the growth of folksongs and of solidifying the words by submitting them to print. True as this is in many cases, they also created and diffused a great many songs which possess a deal of charm in themselves. Don’t you be foolish pray is a good example of this, probably created by a townsman with his idealised view of rural life. In many instances, songs such as this appealed very strongly to the country singers and were allotted high positions in their repertories.’

1: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the words broadsheet and broadside both refer to a large sheet of paper printed on one side only. These were used to publish ballads and songs, as well as news items and advertisements, and sold by street vendors, particularly in the Elizabethan age, but continuing until the nineteenth century.