John Henry Dallmeyer, 1830-1883

by W. Jerome Harrison, Dictionary of National Biography
Edited by Brian Stevenson
last updated June, 2015

Figure 1. A binocular microscope by J.H. Dallmeyer. Image adapted for nonprofit, educational purposes from an on-line auction site.


Figure 2. Monocular microscope by J.H. Dallmeyer. Adapted for nonprofit, educational purposes from The Museum of the History of Science,


Figure 3. A J.H. Dallmeyer dissecting microscope. Images adapted for non-profit, educational purposes from an internet auction site.


Figure 4. A dissecting microscope that is essentially identical to the instrument shown in Figure 3, retailed by Dallmeyer’s father-in-law (and employer) Andrew Ross. It is not surprising that Dallmeyer retained patterns that worked so well before Ross’s death. Photograph on the left is adapted from an internet auction site for non-profit, educational purposes. The drawing on the right is from “The Microscope” by Andrew Ross, 1877 edition. Another example of the Ross version may be seen at


Figure 5. John Henry Dallmeyer.


John Henry Dallmeyer, optician, was born 6 Sept. 1830, at Loxten, near Versmold, department of Minden in Westphalia. He was the second son of a landowner of that district, named William Dallmeyer, and his wife, Catherine Wilhelmina, née Meyer, of Hengelaye, Loxten. The elder Dallmeyer was a man of scientific abilities, and engaged in the hazardous and fruitless speculation of buying sterile ground and treating it with chemicals to make it fertile.

Dallmeyer continued at the elementary school of his native village until the age of fourteen, attracting so much attention by his intelligence and assiduity that it was decided to send him to a higher school, and in 1845 he proceeded to Osnabrück, where he was kindly received by a distant relative named Westmann Meyer, who, being himself childless, took him into his home and sent him to a school conducted by a Mr. Schuren, who had attained a great name as a teacher. He remained here for two years, working specially at geometry and mathematics.

His bent for scientific work was now so evident that on leaving school he was at once apprenticed for three years to an optician at Osnabrück named Aklund, and here he quickly took the first place as a workman, so that at the end of his apprenticeship he had gone far beyond his master. From an early age Dallmeyer appears to have entertained the idea of coming to England, and he undertook, in the evenings, the correspondence of a commercial firm, by which he acquired the means to pay for English lessons twice a week.

Dallmeyer came to England about the middle of 1851. For a few weeks he suffered great straits, but was helped by an old Osnabrück schoolfellow. After five weeks he found employment in the workshop of an optician named W. Hewitt, who had learned his trade under Andrew Ross, and who with his various employees shortly afterwards re-entered Ross's service.

Dallmeyer's position in Ross's workshop appears at first to have been an unpleasant one. From his quiet and retiring ways he was dubbed “the gentleman”, while his still very imperfect knowledge of the English language placed him at a great disadvantage.

Disgusted with his position he sought other employment, and acted for a year as French and German correspondent to a firm of coffee importers. But the firm failed.

Ross's foreman fortunately met him and begged him to return to his master's workshop. “Not as a workman”, Dallmeyer replied.

An interview with the great optician was soon arranged, and Dallmeyer was appointed scientific adviser to the firm, and entrusted with the testing and finishing of the highest class of optical apparatus. He so fully secured the confidence and approval of his employer that Mr. Ross gave his full consent to a marriage between Dallmeyer and his second daughter, Hannah Ross.

In 1859 Andrew Ross died; he left to his son-in-law and co-worker a third of his large fortune, and that portion of his business which was concerned in the manufacture of telescopes.

About this time, Dallmeyer's name was first brought before the public by Sir John Herschel in the article on “Telescopes” in the eighth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, where he gives a list of the most important refracting telescopes then known, adding as to several that “Mr. Dallmeyer laid claim to the personal execution, and the computation of their curvatures”.

The largest object-glass for a telescope made by Dallmeyer did not exceed eight inches in diameter (his favourite size was 4 1/8 inches), but all observers who have used his instruments concur as to their exquisite definition and perfection. This was due, in part, to his system of polishing the glass, an operation which he conducted under water, thereby obtaining a “black” polish seldom met with. Several of Dallmeyer's telescopes have been used in the government expeditions sent to observe eclipses of the sun and the transits of Venus. In 1861 Dallmeyer was elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, and he served for several years upon the council of the society.

At the exhibition of 1862 Dallmeyer came to the front as a manufacturer of photographic lenses; and the greater part of his fame and fortune from this time rested on the admirable instruments which he supplied to photographers in all parts of the world, and of which more than thirty thousand had been sold up to the time of his death. His “triple achromatic lens” is described by the jurors as “free from distortion, with chemical and visual foci coincident”. This lens was specially valuable for copying, and architecture.

Dallmeyer's portrait lenses were constructed on the principle of Professor Petzval, but in one modification, the relative positions of the flint and crown glass in the posterior combination are reversed, so as to render it possible, by slightly unscrewing them, to introduce spherical aberration at will and thus secure that “diffusion of focus” preferred by many artists.

In 1864 Dallmeyer patented a single wide-angle lens, which has since been largely used for photographing landscapes. It consists of two pieces of crown and one of flint glass worked to the proper curves and cemented together so as to form a meniscus of rather deep curvature.

Dallmeyer was for many years a prominent member of the Royal Microscopical Society, and his work in the construction of object-glasses for the microscope is well known and appreciated.

His last important improvement was in the condenser used in the magic, or, as Dallmeyer preferred to call it, the optical lantern. This was effected at the request of an old friend and veteran photographer, the Rev. T.F. Hardwich. The new condenser consisted of a plano-convex combined with a double convex lens, one surface of the latter being nearly flat.

To aid celestial photography Dallmeyer constructed a photo-heliograph for the Wilna observatory of the Russian government in 1863, for taking four-inch pictures of the sun. This instrument was a complete success, and the Harvard College observatory was supplied with a similar one in the following year. In 1873 orders for five photo-heliographs for the transit of Venus expeditions were executed for the English government. These gave four-inch pictures of the sun. They have since been fitted with new magnifiers so as to give pictures eight inches in diameter, and are now constantly employed in solar photography.

At the various exhibitions at Dublin and Berlin (1865), Paris (1867 and 1878), and Philadelphia (1876), Dallmeyer's lenses received the highest awards. The French government bestowed on him the cross of the Legion of Honour, while Russia gave him the order of St. Stanislaus. The topographical departments of (the United Kingdom) and other governments left the optical work of the instruments they ordered entirely in Dallmeyer's hands. Every instrument was tested by him personally before it left his establishment.

Dallmeyer contributed several papers - chiefly on photographic optics - to various periodicals. He wrote a practical pamphlet “On the Choice and Use of Photographic Lenses”, which has passed through six editions. For many years he served on the council of the Photographic Society of Great Britain.

About 1880 Dallmeyer was forced to relinquish active work, and during the next few years he undertook several long journeys in search of health. He resided in a large mansion built by himself on an elevated spot at Hampstead. He died on board ship off the coast of New Zealand, on 30 December, 1883. Dallmeyer was twice married, his second wife being Elizabeth Mary, eldest daughter of Mr. T.R. Williams of Seller's Hall, Finchley. He left five children; and his eldest son, Thomas R. Dallmeyer, continued the business.

Figure 6. Advertisements from “The Athenaeum”, just after the death of Andrew Ross and the unpleasant separation of Dallmeyer and Ross’ son, Thomas. It was probably not a coincidence that Ross’ June, 1860, advertisement was placed adjacent to Dallmeyer’s.


Figure 7. An 1867 advertisement from van Monckhoven’s “Photographic Optics”.


Figure 8. An advertisement for Dallmeyer’s photographic lenses, from the 1874 U.S. edition of Dallmeyer’s “On the Choice and Use of Photographic Lenses”.


Figure 9. An 1878 advertisement, from “The Photographic Journal”. Although photographic lenses were a major focus of Dallmeyer’s business, microscopes and other optical instruments continued to be produced.



The Athenaeum (1860) Advertisements from J.H. Dallmeyer and T. Ross, Vol. 1, January and June advertisement sections

The Dallmeyer Archive (accessed June, 2015)

Dallmeyer, John H. (1874) On the Choice and Use of Photographic Lenses, E. & H.T. Anthony, New York

Harrison, W. Jerome (1888) Dallmeyer, John Henry, Dictionary of National Biography, edited by Stephen Leslie, Vol. 13, pages 400-402

van Monckhoven, Désiré (1867) Photographic Optics, R. Hardwicke, London

Photographic Journal (1878) Advertisement from J.H. Dallmeyer, Vol. 1, October 8, page vii