Thursday, 6 September 2018

Optikit No.1

I was walking with my mother in Woolwich one dark afternoon, when we passed a large store in Powis Street. In the window was a display for a new toy called Optikit. It looked fascinating, promising that all sorts of optical instruments and experiments could be made and carried out with this new "construction kit."

Yes, I'm talking about a long time ago. Perhaps approaching Christmas 1960 or even 1959. Whichever Christmas it was, I soon became the more than proud owner of an Optikit No.1.

It was everything that it had promised to be: its instruction manual provided excellent guides on how to construct, amongst other optical instruments, a microscope, a telescope, a sextant, and its experiments provided a good grounding in basic optics for someone just starting grammar school.

Index page of Instruction Manual

The kit itself included metal sections that, when cunningly connected together, provided surprisingly robust frameworks for the various instruments, lenses of various strengths, lens holders, and other items required for either construction or experimentation. The quality was really quite exceptional: I played with the Optikit a great deal and it still looks good, as these photos show.

And to give some idea of the sort of instrument that could be built with this fascinaiong "toy", here's an illustration from the Instruction Manual showing a cross-section of the projection microscope—Lego and Meccano eat your hearts out!

So what became of Optikit? I have no idea. I only know that there was an Optikit No.0, which, presumably, was the first and less ambitious version of the set, but I know nothing about still more advanced sets—was there ever an Optikit No.2? Optikit was made by the Helio Mirror Company, of Belvedere, Kent. Helio was a defence manufacturing company, making periscopes, which was taken over in 1970 by USI (United Scientific Instruments).

I have checked with Google Maps and the store from which the Optikit was bought is no longer in Powis Street. The building is there, but it seems to have been divided between several new owners (one of the storefronts reads Travelodge). Mind you, looking around Woolwich with street view shows a vastly different town to the one I knew as a boy almost sixty years ago: the Gaumont cinema building is still there, but its function has changed (Gateway House is shown in large letters over the doors of the main entrance) and on opposite is the building that once housed another cinema, the Granada: that, heaven help us all, now seems to be some sort of evangelical church, the Christ Faith Tabernacle. What is the world coming to?

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