Photo courtesy of The

While researching and writing a feature article on presbyopia for the June issue of Vision Monday, I remembered a novel device called the Grolman Fitting System that was once used for fitting patients with progressive lenses. It was, excuse the pun, progressive for its time, though it has since been replaced with modern, digital technologies. Here’s a brief history of the device, drawn from an article I wrote about 25 years ago.

Although progressive addition lenses had been commercially available since the late 1950s, techniques for fitting them had not advanced much by the mid-1970s. Practitioners still relied upon PD rulers and good hand-eye coordination to obtain measurements for horizontal and vertical monocular PDs. Fitting the lenses accurately was especially important for patient success, especially considering the relatively unforgiving "hard" progressive designs of the day.

Enter the Grolman Fitting System. Developed for American Optical (AO) by the late Bernard Grolman, an optometrist and prolific inventor who also devised the non-contact tonometer, the system brought a new level of precision to fitting progressives. Consisting of a plastic device outfitted with horizontal and vertical adjustment knobs, millimeter scales, sliding rollers (to locate the extreme nasal and inferior locus of the eyewire), and a blank size indicator, the system was placed over a patient's frame while they were wearing it. Rubber straps held the device steady while measurements were taken.

 Grolman Fitting System with case. Photo courtesy of the Optical Heritage Museum Detail from American Optical sales brochure for the Grolman Fitting System. Photo courtesy of the Optical Heritage Museum
Beginning in about 1974, AO marketed the Grolman System in conjunction with its first progressive lens, the Ultravue, which was designed by Don Whitney. Although the lens design was considered sophisticated at the time of its release, it is crude by today’s standards.

“It was a very ‘hard’ design and was the same for both left and right eyes,” noted Dick Whitney, an AO veteran who is the late Don Whitney’s son and who is now the director of the Optical Heritage Museum, located at AO former headquarters in Southbridge, Mass. “By hard, I mean the distribution of unwanted astigmatism/power error was crammed into the lower periphery causing noticeable distortion in these areas. Since the blanks were symmetrical, the lens blanks were rotated by 10 degrees during fabrication to achieve the decentration needed for proper fit in the frame.”

The Grolman System was introduced in an effort by AO to educate optometrists on the importance of fitting progressive lenses properly. As the late John Young, another AO veteran who later founded COLTS Labs, told me, “New kinds of measurements were required for the Ultravue. The old PD ruler didn't work. Height was equally important as the monocular PD. This was one way to do it.” Young remembered that “There was a screw on either side of it that you could adjust for the monocular PD, and then you could also individually raise and lower each eye target so you could get the monocular height.”

American Optical sales brochure for the Grolman Fitting System. Photo courtesy of the Optical Heritage Museum 
Using the Grolman system was straightforward. “You’d snap it on, you’d turn some knobs, and you’d write down what it says. It seemed like a good approach, at the time,” said Young.

Trade ads of the time show the device attached to a woman's zyl frame with what appears to be a 75 mm lens. "The initial impact was very favorable," recalled Dr. Grolman when I interviewed him in 1996. "We sold a lot of them.” Dr. Grolman passed away in 2002.

Despite its advantages, many practitioners found the Grolman Fitting System cumbersome to use. Replacement parts were devilishly hard to get. “It required a little more care and commitment of time than most of the clinicians cared for," Dr. Grolman said.

 Lens designer Don Whitney (l) talks with Dr. Bernard Grolman at his retirement party in 1982. Photo courtesy of Dick Whitney
Though the Grolman Fitting System was produced by AO for several years, it eventually fell into disuse as automatic pupilometers and other computerized measuring devices became available in the 1980s. Regarded as an historical curiosity today, the Grolman System “essentially did what opticians and optometrists do now automatically,” said Young, who died in 2017. Credit goes to AO and Dr. Grolman for introducing an accurate mechanical measuring system that was a precursor to today’s digital technologies.

Editor’s Note: Thanks to Dick Whitney, director of the Optical Heritage Museum for sharing his knowledge and photos, and to Steve Erenberg, aka the Radio Guy, for granting permission to use his photo of the Grolman Fitting System. The system pictured above is for sale on his website,