Did Captain Smith wear glasses

Jan 5, 2001
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Okay, I'll admit it's a strange topic, and if I was a betting man then I would say that it has never been covered before.

Much has been made of the need for lookouts to have sight tests, and Officers also needed them. Pitman retired from the sea years later due to his eyesight failing.

None of the photos of Titanic's bridge Officers (that I know of) show any of them wearing glasses, and as they were under forty except for Smith and serving as Officers I can quite believe that they did not wear them.

But, Smith was past the age of sixty by 1912. As a Captain, and a senior one at that, he must have had all of the necessary certificates, but surely by his age he would have needed glasses? Apparently most people need them or have worn them by the age of forty or fifty. He is not wearing them in any photographs that I know of, but if he had needed glasses would it have been a requirement for him to wear them when aboard his ship and in charge? Has anyone got any sources as to Smith wearing glasses?

(Now I'll wait for the astonished reply(ee)! Wink
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Best regards,

Mark.
 

Erik Wood

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I have three pairs of glasses when on watch. Ones for plotting, ones for radar and another everyday pair.

Erik
 
Mar 3, 1998
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Mark,

I've seen many pictures of Smith wearing glasses, but in each of those pictures, he's also wearing a bright red suit trimmed in white fur and is drinking from a hobbleskirt bottle of Coca-Cola.

Parks

Seriously, senior officers of the Line were not forced to reveal dependency on such aids, so it may prove impossible to determine the answer to your question. I'll look to see what I can find, though.
 

Dave Gittins

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Apr 11, 2001
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Wearing glasses may not have been totally unacceptable at the time. When Captain Lord's eyes began to pack up in 1928 he was told by his owners, 'if it does not go beyond wearing spectacles, you should be all right.' If Captain Smith needed glasses you can bet he didn't advertise it though. Bad for the image!
 

Tracy Smith

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It could be that Captain Smith just needed reading glasses, and had adequate distance vision. This would explain why his photographs show him without glasses.

Dave, Captain Lord was also having stomach problems around the same time he began needing glasses, and I'm theorizing that this had more to do with his decision to retire, more so than his vision alone.
 
May 9, 2001
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Didn't people use magnifying glasses back then?
Or a monacle? Perhaps spectacles were too easily broken or expensive to carry around except on special occasion.

Yuri
 

Inger Sheil

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There are photos of two of the Titanic's officers wearing glasses - Both post-retirement, however! One is in a private collection, the other is the final photo of Lightoller in Stenson's book (pg. 330 of the second edition) wearing what seem to be reading glasses.
 

Dave Gittins

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I seem to have read somewhere that Captain Lord's eye trouble was eye disease rather than mere shortsight or similar. Certainly in the last years of his life he was close to blind. By that time he had serious cataracts, possibly caused by years of exposure to UV at sea. The first signs may have been noticed years earlier.

For a good story of a nearly blind captain, read Conrad's The End of the Tether.
 
Jan 5, 2001
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Thanks for the replies. Erik, you are certainly well-prepared.

I can understand why Smith kept it quiet if he did need glasses -- certainly, hardly any people seemed to wear them then. The thing is that if he did need them, and wore them on the bridge, officers would have noticed unless he asked them not to mention it. Then again, perhaps no one thought it important if his sight was adequate with glasses. There must have been some regulation, though, that if he did need distance glasses he should wear them while on the bridge -- for he is meant to oversee things there, etc. Or perhaps that Officers' sight had to be of a certain standard, with or without aid.

Originally I was looking at a 1912 photo and then a modern photo of people in the street, and it struck me how many people wore glasses now compared to then. So I was wondering if people just did not wear them, or that eyesight was better in those days. (Though anyone who has tried to read 1911 The New York Times in poor light will go for the former.)

I like the suggestion that Captain Smith may have only worn reading glasses, as that fits in with the photos and him not needing them otherwise. Smith would have looked quite learned looking at a chart with some pinze-nes on his nose!

The point about price is good, because on those lines it would explain that many people in 1912 could not afford glasses and had to go without. Glass contact lenses were around at the time, but the thought of anyone wearing them for any time seems unlikely.

Come to think of it, Bruce Ismay is wearing glasses in one of his 1930s pictures, but perhaps that was because his sight had started failing then, not because he just had not worn them in 1912.

Best regards,

Mark.
 

Tracy Smith

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Captain Lord did have successful cataract surgery in the early 60s, I believe (I'd have to look up the exact date). And I have a picture of him reading a newspaper in 1961, not all that long before his death in 1962. Also, I've seen a sample of his handwriting from 1959, which did not differ significantly from another sample I've seen from 1912.
 
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David Haisman

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Hi Everyone,
In my experience, several navigating officers have been known to wear glasses primarily for chart work and reading purposes. It's usually the case to see a large magnifying glass in many chart rooms aboard ships and this obviously is an aid to the navigator for close scrutiny of fine print. Many short sighted people have good long vision which is a 'plus' when on the bridge. The emphasis on bridge officers and lookouts is the ability to distinguish between coloured lights and sometimes colour blindness is discovered when undergoing these tests,

Yours Sincerely,
David Haisman
 

Dave Gittins

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Tracy, that would figure. In 1959 he could only read with the aid of a magnifying glass. See Harrison.
 

Erik Wood

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Unfortunatly my eyes are getting worse and I fear it will only be a matter of time before they take my license.

I have seen most Captains I know wear glasses for navigation and reading. But none wear them permantly.

Erik
 
Jan 5, 2001
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Hi!

Thanks Inger for that photo information, I am sorry that I missed your post this morning when composing my reply. Was it Lightoller who said to Lord Mersey that his sight was fine? I seem to remember that. If so, reading glasses in old age would fit.

I think that was probably it: Smith didn't wear glasses except for close-work and reading. I was looking up eyes on the net and it seems highly likely that by his age he would have needed reading glasses, even if he was otherwise fine. Maybe he did need slight distance correction, but I agree that he probably kept that quiet.

I am sorry to hear about your sight, Erik. I myself have had problems, probably due to strain because of the fine print I keep reading; I was recommended to wear contacts for a while to correct it and stop any worsening. Hopefully I will grow out of it, for the eyes are growing until you are 25.

Best regards,

Mark.
 
Dec 4, 2000
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People did not begin wearing "everyday" glasses until post-WWII. In Titanic's day glasses pretty much meant reading glasses.

Warning to you randy nippers -- at the age of presbyopia just about everyone finds their arms growing a bit short at one end. So, reading glasses become necessary.

I know several 20/20 sighted captains who have used those drugstore magnifiying spectacles whenever they worked on charts. A few diopters of magnification can be quite handy, especially in dim light.

However, at sea visual accuity is only a small part of "seeing." It is necessary to learn how to use your eyes, and this is doubly true at night. I have found that lubbers often cannot see a bright red buoy at a range of 150 yards because they honestly do not know how to focus their eyes at "infinity."

In my case, about five years ago my vision was fine in May when we started operating. Late in October, I discovered that I could not see fish net stakes. It was a shock. Spectacles brought back my sight. Since then, I've learned how to use my "old man's eyes" better without the glasses and so can perceive things like those net stakes. Still, the obvious advantage of wearing glasses beats the frustration of trying to find the damned things.

-- David G. Brown
 

Tracy Smith

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We are fortunate nowadays to have vision correction surgery that I believe is now available for nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatism, that wasn't available in Titanic's day.

Dave, when I'd read in Harrison's book about Captain Lord having cataract surgery (March 1961), I was intrigued, because I had not known it was available in the early 1960s. My father had the same operation in the mid 1980s and it was successful to the point where the restriction requiring glasses was removed from his driver's license. Indeed, when he died at age 72, his eyesight was nearly perfect.
 
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Cassandra Crowther

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I was reading somewhere that Officer Pitman left the bridge due to his eyes not being "watch-qualified", so I should think that eyeglasses (for distance) would not have been the thing for a bridge officer back then. I suspect that if Capt. Smith wore glasses, it would be for reading and not distance.
 

Dave Gittins

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Tracy, my mother had cataract operations done at some time in the 1960s. It was pretty drastic in those days, as they didn't use interocular lenses. She had to wear thick glasses all the time but they worked quite well. I don't know what current practice is, but in those days they used to wait until the patient was pretty well blind before operating. I assume this was because the operation sometimes failed and it was thought that any vision was better than none.
 

Tracy Smith

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They don't wait that long anymore. My father was nowhere near blind when he had his operation; he was driving, going to work, etc, at the time he had his operation.

It's interesting to note that in that 1961 picture of Captain Lord, he is reading the newspaper without glasses at all. But I also have a picture of him taken about a month before his death, on Christmas 1961, and he is wearing glasses in this picture.
 

John M. Feeney

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Sep 20, 2000
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Fascinating topic, Mark! (Never much thought about this myself.)

One minor observation -- it's entirely conceivable that *nothing* definitive can be deduced from those photographs lacking eyeglasses. (I don't mean the candid street scenes, of course.) People might well be induced to doff their spectacles for protraits, etc., for a couple reasons:

1) vanity;
2) the possibility of picking up glare, "ruining" the picture.

(Possibly relating to either of the above, some photographers even characteristically asked their subjects if they "would like to remove their glasses".)

Cheers,
John