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A Ray of Light on Wray: The Wray Optical Company


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I have written a few articles pertaining to cameras and this is another in that occasional series, although we are here concerned with more than just cameras and the topic was sparked off by my purchase of a pair of binoculars. These binoculars are marked in Art deco style with the word, "MAGNIVU" above the basic specs, "8 X 30," on one side, and the other side of the binoculars bears the legend, "WRAY/LONDON" in the same font. Before going any further, I can tell you that these binoculars are listed in the 1947 Wray catalogue, and the subject of this topic is the Wray optical concern.



Pair of early 1950s Wray Magniview 8 X 30 binoculars showing the typical Wray font used for the branding at the time - identical to my own pair mentioned above (pics from c2.staticflickr.com and i54.tinypic.com):






William Wray was born in Whitby, Yorkshire, on 6 December 1829, and he was later elected a Fellow of the RAS on 10 January 1862 with an address at Laurel House, North Hill, Highgate. He was a solicitor by profession, as well as being an enthusiastic amateur astronomer and telescope maker, and it is therefore perhaps not surprising that Wray would became known for decent quality astronomical refracting telescopes in the later part of the 19th century. Prior to that but after William Wray had founded his firm in Highgate, London, in 1850, it seems that he was manufacturing microscope objective lenses.

In terms of his astronomical interests, there is a reference to a James Breen travelling to Spain in 1860 in the company of William Wray and James Buckingham to observe a total solar eclipse on 18 July. This is doubly interesting because Buckingham then constructed a 21 inch equatorial refracting telescope, the 21 inch lens of which was made by Wray. This telescope was exhibited at the 1862 Exhibition in London before being installed in Buckingham's observatory on Walworth Common, London. I cannot find the exact date for William Wray's death, but his obituary from the RAS appears in the minutes of the Society's 1886 AGM, where he is credited with being the first to switch from dense to light flint glass, thus "lessening the secondary spectrum in a marked degree." Evidently, most of the extant Wray astronomical telescopes  date from about 1880 until the end of the 19th century, and the Wray company continued in business without William.  It is not always clear whether a particular Wray telescope "merely" used Wray lenses, with the other workings coming from other manufacturers, and certainly some of the earlier Wray products also bear other company names in addition to Wray branding.



Wray, London, brass telescope on Parallactic mounting and heavy duty tripod, c.1900. 55 inches in length (pic from media.liveauctiongroup.com):



Wray 4 inch astronomical refractor originally sold to A. F Miller for his observatory in Canada c.1882 (pic from rasc.ca):





I have access to some information listing the various company names, locations, and owners for Wray, but they are rather approximate and more research would be needed to fully provide all this information. After the turn of the century, Wray was in steep decline but was saved in 1908 by a merger with the Aitcheson company known for its manufacture of prism binoculars. At some time before 1916, the firm was still listed as W. Wray  but with a new address at Hanover Street, Peckham. From about 1916 until 1950, the company was listed as Wray Ltd., at Ashgrove Road, Bromley, and subsequent to 1950 we have Wray (Optical Works) Ltd., still operating in Bromley, Kent.

On the merger of Aitcheson and Wray in 1908, W.Wray, then Wray Ltd., started the manufacture of binoculars in addition to other lenses. During World War One, the firm made substantial numbers of binoculars and photographic lenses for the Royal Flying Core, and this was to be the case also for the Second World War, when Wray was an important provider of prism binoculars and reflector gunsights. It was during World War 1 that the "Smith" era (father and then later, son) of management/ownership began at Wray optical, with the company move to Peckham.

During World War Two, in 1942/43, a new era for the Wray company commenced, when Charles Gorrie Wynne moved to South East London and started work for the firm, designing and making lenses. Charles Gorrie Smith joined Taylor, Taylor and Hobson in 1935 as a recent Oxford graduate. While there, he designed lenses and worked on the optimisation of lens design using "computers," a system of mechanical calculators and trigonometrical tables.  On his arrival at Wray Ltd., he started work designing lenses for the RAF which were used for photo-reconnaissance and air survey and which included a wide angle lens aerial survey lens. From sometime around this period, Arthur Smith became Managing Director and owner of Wray, following on from his father who had taken over Wray after leaving the Ross Optical Company.

At the end of World War Two, Wray Ltd. soon became known as Wray (Optical Works) Ltd., and now had to turn to the civilian market, looking not only towards specialised lenses but also consumer products such as cameras and binoculars. Immediately post-War, the British optical companies found themselves in a somewhat advantageous position because their previous German/European competition was in no fit state to compete effectively. Most British firms therefore started by producing slightly updated World War Two models, and Wray was no exception. The only real concession to modernity was the new use by the British of coated lenses - a Zeiss invention from 1939.



A large pair of 1950s Wray 16 X 50 binoculars and case (pic from picclickim.com):



An interesting Wray, London 20 X 60 prismatic spotting telescope from the second half of the 1940s which, given its provenance, may have been originally for military use (pics from thumbs.worthpoint.com):






The British firms, Ross, Barr & Stroud, Wray and Kershaw entered the 1950s concentrating on the upper tier of the binoculars market, producing expensive models and failing to both widen their audience and keep an eye on the new foreign competition. It was not until 1957 that Ross and Wray launched cheaper ranges, starting at the magic £20 mark - previously, cheaper binoculars came from French imports and MOD surplus stocks.

It is not generally known that the British optical industry suffered from a crisis in the 1960s not unlike the quartz crisis that hit the Swiss watch industry.; also not generally appreciated is the badge engineering that took place whereby optical items made by one company could be sold under the brand name of another optical company.The efforts to provide low-cost binoculars by the British companies was half-hearted at best, and quality was still too dependent on price. While the British could still produce fine quality binoculars in the 1960s, they were just too expensive for the general public, and taking advantage of this gap the Japanese entered the fray and started a major decline among British companies. Indeed, the rise of Japanese optics and consumer optical goods from the disastrous situation in 1945 to a complete reversal by 1965 is astonishing, and when the British Government lifted restrictions of Japanese imports into the UK in that year, the die was cast and British binoculars and cameras were just not able to compete in terms of combining high quality with reasonable prices. In 1966, the consumer could buy a pair of quality 8 X 40 binoculars by a good Japanese maker for just under £18.



Vintage pair of Wray Clearview 8X 30 binoculars with notable rough textured finish apparently common on Royal navy binoculars of the period. This model, in slightly different guise, was also branded for Dollond (pic from 3.bp.blogspot.com):





By the end of the 1960s, no less than ten Japanese companies were selling binoculars in the UK - Concord, Greenkat, Frank-Nipole, Tohyoh, Hilkinson, Yashica, Swift, Canon, Asahi Pentax, and Tasco. It doesn't take a genius to be aware that some of these firms were not merely providers of binoculars but were also camera makers and makers of other optical instruments, and Wray was soon in the firing line in relation to foreign competition in the consumer optical goods market other than binoculars - most notably, cameras. As a side note, I personally also remember the advent of inexpensive consumer optical goods being imported from the USSR during the mid-1960s, including cameras, binoculars and telescopes, also competing with British products including those by Wray. Having mentioned that Wray was a camera producer, we need to take a look at the two main Wray cameras intended for amateur use and the general consumer market.



The Wrayflex and its interchangeable lenses, as illustrated in 1954 (pic from farm4.staticflickr.com):





Mention  has already been made of Charles Gorrie Wynne, who became technical director at Wray optical works in the 1950s. It was shortly after the War that Wynne designed lenses for what to be the only British-made 35mm single lens reflex (SLR) camera; the Wrayflex. The essence of the SLR camera is that the photographer can view the actual image to be photographed, through the camera lens, prior to the shutter being released. In the case of the Wrayflex, possibly based on a German design) but with that design passed on by a Royal Naval officer named Maurice Studdert, patented in 1947 and manufactured from about 1950, there were to be three models. Models I and Ia are rather beautiful cameras having a low profile due to the use of a system of mirrors rather than a pentaprism to provide the reflex image; almost the sole difference between them is that the I made images in a non-standard 24X32mm format.



The beautiful Wrayflex Model Ia SLR camera (see text) (pics from collectiblend.com and farm9.staticflickr.com):





The nice aesthetics of the Wrayflex I and Ia cameras had to be sacrificed due to the increasing competition from cameras having a brighter viewfinder and a viewfinder image that was not laterally reversed. Thus, Wray's third model, the Wrayflex II, has a prism, giving it a taller profile. This model, made from about 1959, uses the standard 24X36mm image, as did the Ia before it. It should be noted that the Wrayflex was quite innovative and has a recognised place in camera history.

All three Wrayflex models had a lot in common. They all have a focal plane shutter with speeds from a half to a thousandth of a second speed, plus 'B' and they all used standard 35mm film cassettes and have a film-advance key in the base. The three models also used the same group of five interchangeable Wray lenses. The "standard" lens, the 50mm f/2 Unilite, carried patents and later a dispute arose with Corfield and their 45mm Lumax lens for the Periflex, when Corfield unwittingly infringed the Wray patent and were forced to acknowledge that fact. In addition to flash synchronisation sockets on the front of the camera for electronic and bulb, the Wrayflex II has a cold shoe on top of the prism.



The Wrayflex Model II with pentaprism and instant return mirror (pic from shutterbug.com):





The second notable camera from Wray was a version of the Graphlex Stereo Graphic camera, manufactured by the Graflex company between 1955 and 1960. This camera makes pairs if 24X 23mm pictures at each exposure, using a pair of Graflex Graflar 35m f/4 lenses. The workings of the camera were simple, however, with a fixed focus and a simple exposure dial on the front of the camera and a fiftieth of a second shutter speed. The Wray version of the camera was sold from 1959 and apart from Wray branding, the appearance of the Wray version was identical to the Graflex model - internally though, the Wray version used Wray lenses. I am not sure how many Wrayflex and Wray Stereo Graphic cameras were made and sold during their periods of production. Evidently, they were to be ultimately outclassed and outsold by the Japanese competition, with stereo cameras having only limited novelty appeal anyway. One other consumer application of Wray lenses needs to be mentioned here, and that is the production of enlarger lenses, where Wray was an important player. For members who are interested in the Wrayflex story, I would recommend the book, "The Wrayflex Story," by John Wade (on wrayflex.co.uk).



The Wray Stereo Graphic camera, and a picture of the Wray stereo viewer designed for viewing the stereo images - see text (pics from rockycameras.com):





The influence and lens design work of Charles Gorrie Wynne was extremely important for Wray. During the 1950s, Wray designed an amazing lens with a relative aperture of f/0.71 for use in  mobile X-ray equipment which was used in mass radiographic programmes necessary to eliminate tuberculosis (Wynne had suffered from TB as a student and was aware of the dim phosphor X-ray screens then used). Also, Wynne was involved in the development of lenses for large astronomical telescopes, starting with a system that doubled the field of view of the 200 inch Mount Palomar telescope; he became known for field widening optics for large telescopes as well as spectrographs and atmospheric dispersion correctors.



Wray 3.25 inch f/4.5 Supar enlarger lens sitting on the red lid to the clear plastic container - a habit of Wray was to have a red plastic lid that could double-up as a red filter for the enlarger (pic from picclickimg.com):




While at Wray, Charles Gorrie Wynne created a specific development department for unusual products - essential to keep the firm going when consumer products were starting to decline in sales due to foreign competition. Probably the most sophisticated Wynne lens produced at Wray Optical was a 135mm f/4 that had an unusual triple correction for astigmatism. In 1959, Charles Gorrie Wynne was invited by Patrick Blackett to join the newly established "Technical Optics Section" as director at Imperial College, and in this position he re-created a specialist unit similar to that at Wray, and subsequently, in 1969, Wynne became a Professor and not only taught optical design but also developed and designed lens systems for experimental bubble chamber physics. His later career in optics at ImperialCollege and the Royal Greenwich Observatory is beyond the remit of this topic but he holds a distinguished position in the annals of optical design, receiving a number of honours.

When Charles Gorrie Wynne left Wray optical works, the inevitable hiatus was lessened by the fact that he had an able successor in David Day who had been with the firm since 1950 having gained an MSc from the Technical Optics Department of Imperial College. David Day succeeded Wynne as chief optical designer at Wray and it was he who completed the design of a "head up" display proposed to the firm by Elliott Automation. As Technical Director of Wray towards the end of the company's life, David Day and his design team developed special lenses for CERN and for microchip replication, the advanced features of which probably accelerated the early development of microelectronics. Another Day project was an anamorphic projection system for cinemas, based on Brewster prisms.

The end of Wray (Optical Works) Ltd. came in 1971; a premature cessation of a company that was apparently still in profit. In July 1968, the Rank Organisation made a successful bid for Hilger &Watts, and Rank Precision Instruments was formed to bring together  Taylor, Taylor & Hobson, Pullin & Aldis, and Hilger & Watts. Rank also presumably swallowed up Wray at about this time, and in June 1971 closed the Bromley-based Wray optical works, transferring most of the plant to Kershaw's in Leeds.  At this time, Wray still held contracts to produce for head up display (HUD) optics and yet Kershaw never capitalised on this which was very short-sighted of the Rank organisation. Arthur William Smith, then head of Wray, tried to place some of the Wray staff with a new optics factory in North Wales  created by Dr. Laurence Pilkington, and Smith certainly became an advisor to PPE which would have assisted Pilkington's to successfully win business for HUD optics.


IMPORTANT NOTE: I am aware that there is currently someone researching the Wray optical company with a view to producing a comprehensive history. My article is really meant to be an introduction to a firm that, in its day, was both important and innovative in the optical world, and British. As this topic is appearing on a watch forum, it is interesting to draw a comparison between the demise of British watchmaking and the decline of the British consumer optics industry. I say, "consumer" because I am not sure how specialist optics has fared in Britain more recently.


Three-draw leather-wrapped brass telescope by Wray, London, retailed by Cogswell and Harrison Ltd., c.1910(pics from cdn.globalauctionplatform.com):





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On 08/11/2017 at 16:46, bridgeman said:

Towards the end you mention Wray photographic enlarger lenses. I distinctly remember working with my dad in the blacked out  kitchen using such a lens in the enlarger .

thanks for a great read.

As do I Honor, but in my case it was an old enlarger I inherited from the local Camera Club when they purchased a newer one - - I think I got it for about £3:10/- in a sealed envelope auction - you placed the money in a sealed envelope with your name on, and then your name was drawn out of the hat. I won it, and all the other envelopes were opened as well and the cash put towards the new purchase - - Win, Win! 

I loved placing it on the workbench, turning the enlarger round the pillar and projecting the image onto the floor to make raelly big grainy enlargements. 

Happy Days :yes:

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