By Judy Deeter
The Lohmann brothers of Greenville, Ohio were skilled craftsmen who manufactured camera lenses and some of the world’s finest telescopes. Their creations and skills were known around the world. Yet, many Greenville residents had no idea they did anything other than repair vehicles and lawnmowers.
The fabulous Lohmann legacy was lost in part because the family kept their work secret. There are no public diaries, only a handful of newspaper stories and a few photographs. Historians mainly rely on stories by people who knew them—longtime neighbors and friends. Details written about them are often inconsistent.
Writer Thomas Williams once said, “So great was their obscurity that a local paper once took three guesses at the spelling of (Lohmann brother) Ed’s name—and still came up wrong: El Lehman, Ed Lehman, Ed Lohman. A later story referred to the family as Lowman.” Several articles written about the family have the name spelled “Lohman” (with one “n” at the end rather than a double “n”). In some published stories, the spelling of the name changes within the article!
The Lohmann brothers—Robert, Edward (always known as “Ed”), Herschel and Chris (believed to be also known as “Din”)—were sons of William and Elizabeth Lohmann.
William Lohmann, a native of Hamilton, Ohio, served as a Union soldier during the Civil War and settled in Greenville after the war in 1868. About that time, he started a wagon and buggy manufacturing business at the corner of West Main and Sycamore streets with fellow veteran Captain George Moore as his business partner.
There is very little information about how Lohmann’s sons were educated or learned their glass-grinding skills. The boys did help their father at his business and learned the wagon and buggy building trade. A sign at the Lohmann exhibit in Greenville’s Garst Museum reads: “Working with him (William Lohmann), by the time they were eleven or twelve years old were his four sons: Herschel, Robert, Din and Ed. The three oldest were talented musicians, artists and photographers. Ed, the youngest, was a brilliant amateur astronomer and mathematician.” The only reference found regarding their education has to do with Ed Lohmann graduating from high school. He was known as the only male in the Greenville High School Class of 1893 (there were 17 students in the class).
A sign at the Garst Museum Lohmann exhibit reads: “The boys made cameras for themselves for which they ground their own lenses. In 1895, just two years after graduating from Greenville High School…Ed built his first telescope with the help of his brothers.”
On February 21, 1924, Ed Lohmann filed for a patent for the reflecting telescope (patent 1.578.899). It was granted March 30, 1926. A statement signed by Edward Lohmann reads: “Be it known that I, Edward Lohmann, a citizen of the United States residing at Greenville, Ohio in the County of Darke and State of Ohio, have invented a new and useful Reflecting Telescope….” Some believe this was the first two-mirror telescope to be invented by an American.
The Lohmann brothers purchased glass for their products from Jena, Germany. An old story tells about a group from Ohio Wesleyan University who once went to Jena to purchase equipment for the school’s Perkins Observatory. After all the arrangements were made to purchase what they needed in Germany, the group learned they could have had their purchases made by the Lohmann brothers in Greenville!
As previously noted, the Lohmann brothers were very secretive about their work. Greenville columnist James Light, Jr. wrote in his “Outdoors” column (August 13, 1960—publication unknown): “I have always felt honored that I was permitted in the locked section of the Lohmann shop where all of the telescope work was done. Very few of the people that visited Ed’s shop to have a lawn mower repaired, or a new tire put on their buggy, realized that behind that locked door at the front of the shop, was a precision workshop capable of the best work in the world… If you ever wondered why Ed was hard to find about ten o’clock on any sunny morning, it was because that was the only time the sun shone through the pin-hole in that room, and this pin-hole of light was a very essential part of checking the telescope lenses.”
Writer John E. Oliver said in a July 16, 1966 article in the Greenville Advocate: “Ed Lohmann…was a man of strong convictions and kept to himself, a trait which resulted in his talents being known only by a few. Herschel and Robert were other brothers in the business, which included manufacturer of all sorts of mechanical devices with intricate gears for larger manufacturing concerns, in addition to producing telescopes.”
While little was known about their work in Greenville, their products were revered in other parts of the world. One old Lohmann-related tale (and there are several versions of this story) is about a girl named Margaret who went around the world as part of her college education. In France, she visited the country’s largest observatory. While there, she mentioned to one of the guides that she was from Greenville. The guide became very excited when he heard the name of her hometown. He was sure she must know the famous Lohmann brothers who had made the observatory telescope. It is said that the guide was “dumbfounded” when Margaret told him she didn’t know them. Margaret was also surprised as she realized that she had traveled to France to see a telescope made in her hometown. When she returned to Greenville, she learned that she had lived her entire life two blocks away from the Lohmann brothers.
The photographs on this page were taken at the Garst Museum in Greenville, which is located at 205 N. Broadway St. and open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. The above images depict the Lohmann Brother’s work and are from the National Archives.
Aside from the French telescope, some of the Lohmann telescopes and/or lenses were (or are) known to be at: Rome, Italy (telescope), Mt. Wilson Observatory, California (large mirror), the Philippines (telescope), El Paso Science Museum in Texas (a 9 inch refractor built in 1904), Miami University, Oxford, Ohio (refractor), University of Cincinnati (telescope), University of Syracuse (telescope), University of Kansas (telescope), items in locations in Dayton, Ohio and on display at the Garst Museum in Greenville. The Greenville telescopes and lenses are part of the collection of the Darke County Historical Society. The museum has small hand-held telescopes, as well as a model with a large 9-inch lens.
The late Darke County historian Toni Seiler wrote a memo about the Lohmann brothers. Her note, which is on file in the Genealogy Room at the Garst Museum, reads: “The story persists that a very large lense (sic) ground by the Lohmann’s was shipped out of Greenville on a flat bed railroad car. Supposedly, it went to an observatory in California, but where has never been ascertained.”
The Great Depression of the 1930s brought the work of the Lohmanns to an end. Mrs. Seiler also reported in her memo, “When the Great Depression hit, the colleges and observatories could not afford to buy scopes and the Lohmann business suffered. The number of telescopes made by the brothers is not known. No records were found or perhaps none were kept.”
A sign at the Garst Museum exhibit reads: “When the telescope and wagon business collapsed during the Depression of the 1930s, Ed continued to eke out a living by fixing small motors and sharpening scissors and lawnmowers. He died in 1960 at age 86.” He was the last of the Lohmann brothers to pass away.
While the Lohmann brothers were secretive about their work, they did share their love of looking at the stars with Greenville residents. Supposedly they used to bring a telescope to the Darke County Courthouse lawn for public viewing.
After the death of Ed Lohmann, Walter Rhynard, a local attorney and President of the Miami Valley Astronomical Association, tried to keep the Lohmann memory alive. He salvaged the remains of the Lohmann’s telescope and repair business that had been junked, collected catalogs—some from Europe—that featured Lohmann products and took a telescope to the Darke County Courthouse lawn for public viewing (keeping up a tradition started by the Lohmann family).
Mr. and Mrs. R.C. (Pete) Brown purchased Rhynard’s Lohmann collection and donated it to the Garst Museum in 1973. On December 18, 1973, the Greenville City Council passed a resolution indicating that the Lohmann collection of telescopic material should always be kept in Greenville.
In August 1960, Greenville columnist James Light, Jr. wrote: “It seems such a waste for these men to have lived and died here in our home town, and never have been recognized for the great men they were.”
Writer Thomas E. Williams said, “After decades of obscurity, helping others to look at the stars, the Lohmann bothers have become the ‘stars.’”