Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 132,207 pages of information and 209,718 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.
John Benjamin Dancer (1812-1887), F.R.A.S. of Manchester
See also Abraham and Dancer
Inventor, optician, and maker of microscopes, barometers, surveyors' compasses, and other scientific instruments.
A very good summary was written by Roy Winsby , from which the following information has been extracted:-
John Benjamin was the son of Josiah Dancer, also an optician and manufacturer of optical, philosophical and nautical instruments. The family moved from London to Liverpool in 1817. J.B. took over his father's business in 1835 but moved to Manchester in 1841. With a Mr.Abraham set up the business of Abraham and Dancer at 13 Cross Street, Manchester. Abraham left the partnership after four years and returned to his home city of Liverpool.
Dancer was an optician supplying spectacles, as well as being an inventor and instrument maker of outstanding ability. At a young age he had acquired the art of grinding microscope and others types of lenses. During his lifetime he made substantial contributions to microscopy, photography and science.
When Dancer moved to Manchester he found that there were only two achromatic microscopes in the city. He began to produce achromatic microscopes more cheaply, and supplied them to prominent figures including John Dalton, Dr.J.P.Joule, Joseph Sidebotham, Dr.W.B.Carpenter, and many others, replacing the Culpeper and other simple type microscopes they had been using.
In 1839 Dancer pioneered the making of microphotographs mounted on slides for microscope viewing, but the system he first used, the Daguerro process, was not satisfactory as the photographs were on an opaque background and could not be viewed satisfactorily with magnifications exceeding x20. In 1851 Frederick Scott Archer introduced the collodion process which involved a very fine grain image on glass. Dancer used this system - by which images in very fine detail could be recorded - was used by Dancer to produce vastly improved microphotograph slides. The skill he developed enabled him to make micrometer scales and graticules.
Dancer greatly improved the illumination of 'magic lanterns'. These had relied on hand drawn and painted slides, but Dancer made the first photographic positives as lantern slides, greatly increasing the value of projected slide images.
Between 1853 and 1856 he developed the stereoscopic camera. [Note: Sir David Brewster had exhibited a lenticular stereoscope in 1851. In 1853 Dancer constructed his first twin-lens camera to Brewster's design ]
Among his other numerous accomplishments were improvements in Daniell liquid type batteries, the electrical spring make-and-break contact, the electro magnet, electric shock machine, experiments with ozone gas, the photographic micrometer, instruments for measuring the accuracy of rifle barrels, astronomical, meteorological, surveying and other instruments for many leading scientists.
In 1870, when he was 58, he started to suffer from Glaucoma and his eyesight began to fail. Subsequent eye operations did not help him very much, and by 1878 he had to give up his business activities. He spent his last years blind and in comparative obscurity.
Dancer had taught his daughters, Eleanor Elizabeth and Catherine, the process of making microphotographs and they took over the running of the business, trading under the name of E. E. Dancer & Co. for some 25 years until 1900 when the stock and the process of producing quality microphotographs were sold to a Mr. Richard Suter, a London microscope dealer.
c.1885 Dancer dictated his autobiography to his 16 years old grand-daughter, Elizabeth. By chance the hand-written manuscript came to light in 1958. Miss E.C. Wilkie, the daughter of Elizabeth, had attended an exhibition being held in honour of her great-grandfather, and she mentioned that she had the original manuscript. With her assistance, one of the Society's members, Mr.W.Browning, arranged for the manuscript to be published by the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society in Vol.107 of their Manchester Memoirs (unaltered except for the addition of punctuation and sub-headings), together with a selection of letters written to Dancer by some of his well known scientific correspondents and friends.
Two years later in 1960, over 70 years after Dancer's death, the National Microfilm Association of U.S.A. presented its Dancer Pioneer Medal to Miss Wilkie, with the following citation - "To John Benjamin Dancer, a man of strong character and immense energy; alert and practical, a skilled craftsman and manipulator; sympathetic, ever ready to help the youthful searcher, inventor of microphotography, the National Microfilm Association is proud to present this posthumous Medal of Meritorious Service to the microfilm industry."
An article by Mike Mahon, 'John Benjamin Dancer 1812-1887: 19th Century Manchester Instrument Maker & Inventor of Microphotography' presents an excellent concise summary of Dancer's life and achievements
The Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography  provides authoratitive information on aspects of Dancer's contributions to photography and to other fields. We learn that he introduced daguerrotype apparatus to Manchester and taught the process to John Dale and Joseph Sidebotham. Following Dancer's development of microphotography, Sir David Brewster demonstrated examples to the Academy des Sciences in Paris in 1857, and to the Pope in Rome.
In 1849 he made a stereoscopic camera, and patented an improved version in 1856 (Patent No. 2064).
He discovered the basis of electrotyping. He introduced achromatic lenses in magic lanterns.
THE INTRODUCTION OF PHOTOGRAPHY INTO LIVERPOOL AND MANCHESTER. (BY J. B. DANCER}
'Having many reasons for believing that I was one of the first to practise the daguerreotype process in this country, and also to introduce camera photography into Liverpool and Manchester, I hope to be permitted to place the following statement on record in your columns as a contribution to the early history of photography in the towns above-named.
'Early in the year 1839 Daguerre's wonderful discovery was announced. The accounts given of beautiful pictures he had obtained with the camera obscura induced me abandon the photographic paper process in which I was then engaged, and to commence experimenting at once with Daguerre's silvered plate process. Unfortunately for my purpose the early descriptions of Daguerre's method of proceeding were crude and obscure. In consequence of this I had six weeks of work, numerous failures, and, accidentally, was nearly suffocated by the vapour of iodine before I obtained satisfactory results.
'Being a practical optician, the camera used was one of my own construction, such as I had frequently supplied to artists for tracing the outlines of views in the camera. An achromatic object glass from a telescope gave fair definition. My photographs were objects of great curiosity to scientific friends and acquaintances.
'I was naturally anxious to compare my productions with those of Daguerre. One day I heard that some of Daguerre's pictures had been sent to the Adelaide Gallery in London for exhibition. That same day I left Liverpool for London, taking one of my best pictures. The result of the comparison was very gratifying to me, and I returned elated to Liverpool, and commenced photographing the public buildings. At the request of friends I publicly exhibited the daguerreotype process to an audience of some 1,500 people. The object then photographed was a flea magnified as large as a 7in. by 5in. silvered plate would permit, the instrument used being a gas microscope of my own construction. Many other microscopic objects were enlarged, and some pictures reduced ; one (a printed placard) was reduced to an eighth of an inch square, being perfectly legible under the microscope.
'Many other experiments followed. Some time previously, whilst improving Professor Daniel's batteries, replacing the bladders and ox gullets which were then used to separate the two solutions, employing instead thin porous earthenware cells, which since that time have been universally employed in various batteries — whilst thus engaged I discovered a method of depositing thin copper plates by electrical action, a process now named electrotyping. I deposited copper on my daguerreotype pictures, and thus obtained reversed pictures on copper. At the request of a medical friend I took a reduced picture of a family portrait, employing the eye of a recently killed ox for my camera lens.
'In the year 1841 I came to reside in Manchester. At that period the daguerreotype process had not been practised in this city, so far as I could ascertain. Mr. John Dale, the well-known chemist, of the firm of Roberts and Dale, Cornbrook, and pupil of the late Dr. Dalton, and the late Mr. Joseph Sidebotham, of Bowdon, were amongst the first gentlemen to whom I supplied daguerreotype apparatus and taught the process.
'Many of the Manchester gentlemen became amateur photographers, and it soon became a popular amusement. In November, 1841, Mr. Beard, who had purchased the patent right in England, opened a daguerreotype portrait gallery in rooms over the Manchester Exchange. The late Mr. Peter Clare, at my request, induced the late Dr. Dalton to sit for his portrait at this gallery. Three only were taken — Mr. Peter Clare had one, Mr. John Dale had another, and a third fell to my share ; these were the only photographic portraits taken of the celebrated Dr. Dalton.
'In 1852 the collodian process became the favourite, the manipulation being simple and the materials employed comparatively inexpensive, and by its aid landscape photography became very popular. I devised several modifications in the camera to facilitate the changing of the sensitive plates during outdoor operations without the assistance of a tent.
'At that time stereoscopic photographs were usually taken with one camera. After the first exposure the camera was moved to a distance on the same plane, then the second picture was taken. Photographers were not agreed as to the exact distance the camera should be moved for taking the second picture : some advocated eight inches, others several feet between the two places, I practically demonstrated that in taking the two pictures the camera should only be moved the distance of the average space between the human eyes, otherwise the pictures when viewed in the stereoscope would not present a natural appearance. I then introduced the twin lens camera ; my idea was ridiculed at first by some leading photographers, and especially by Mr. Sutton, then editor of the Photographic Notes. I sent copies of my practical demonstrations to many eminent men of science, including Sir Charles Wheatstone and Sir David Brewster. The latter philosopher complimented me on my demonstration. Since that time stereoscopic cameras have been mounted with twin lenses, and both pictures taken simultaneously.
'Photographers are generally aware of my connection with the introduction of the lime light, the dissolving gas tap achromatic lenses and photographs for the gas lantern and the minute photographs for the microscope, all of which are intimately connected with the early history of photography in Manchester.' 
'MR. J. B. DANCER.
To the Editor of the Manchester Courier.
'Sir, —Some days ago there appeared in your columns a letter from Mr. J. B. Dancer, recalling to our notice the large share that gentleman took in the introduction of photography to Manchester and Liverpool. But photography is only one of the many arts and sciences indebted to him ; and though it is neither possible nor necessary to give a detailed catalogue of those services, the list that follows cannot be without interest to the Manchester public, whose townsman Mr. Dancer has been for more than half his lifetime.
'Of his connection with photography he has himself written, though in the modest and imperfect way one would expect such a man to write about himself. There is the stereoscopic camera with twin lenses, which, as he explained, he was the first to make. He invented microscopic photographs, which so much delighted and astonished us 25 or 30 years ago. He also introduced photography to the magic lantern, being the first to show photographic transparency on a screen; and the exhibitions which men of middle age will so well remember at the Mechanics' Institution, when Mr. E. Hutchens was the secretary, were largely due to Mr. Dancer, and were the first ever held. The lantern itself is also indebted to him, not only in its optical parts and its construction generally, but also particularly in the application of the oxy-hydrogen light, and for a dissolving gas tap, which saves half the gases and produces the best dissolving effect.
'Then there should be mentioned, as of much greater importance than the above, the automatic " contact breaker," used probably by the million at this moment, in every induction coil in the world. Prior to Mr. Dancer's invention, contact used to be made and unmade by hand, in a vessel containing mercury. The first helical coil with the vibrating interrupter was constructed by Mr. Dancer, and was exhibited long after by him at one of the soirees of the British Association, when the meeting was held in Manchester.
'When Mr. Dancer established himself as an optician in Manchester, his presence soon made itself felt amongst the few microscopists then living in the district. Good microscopes were then costly, and worthless ones very common. Mr. Dancer successively brought out several forms of instruments, excellent in their mechanical and optical arrangements as they were moderate price. Instruments fully equal the requirements of original research were thus brought within the reach of many whoso observing faculties were more conspicuous than their financial resources. It would be difficult to over-estimate the stimulus which Mr. Dancer thus gave to Manchester microscopy; it cannot doubted that the present energy of our local microscopists is the direct outcome of the impulse which their means of research then received.
'Not only so, but the value of the new instruments was recognised outside our city, by such men as Mr. Quekett, Dr. William Carpenter, Dr. Gideon Mantell, and Mr. Bransby Cooper, all of whom were familiar with their excellent qualities. These facts suggest that Mr. Dancer's claims upon us are worthy of recognition by many now treading in paths which he made easy for them, though personally a stranger to them.
'This is a considerable catalogue for one man to be concerned in; but it does not complete the list. Mr. Dancer mentions the porous jar in his letter, which he was the first to suggest in the Daniell's battery, and which it is difficult to over-estimate the importance of. There are also his improvements in levels; the speed counter; an instrument for testing coloured fabrics for calico printers ; improvements in air pumps; improvements in voltaic batteries, &c., &c.
'It is sad to have to say, that notwithstanding Mr. Dancer's talents and achievements, he is now living in very straitened circumstances, is moreover afflicted with almost total blindness, and therefore unable to follow the optical business to which his life has been devoted. It is not an unusual thing for a man of great mechanical ingenuity and skill to be an indifferent man of the world, and so it has been with him; as a business man he has been a failure. He has made improvement after improvement, invention after invention, any one of which might in "pushing" hands have made a fortune ; but more interested in science than in money-making, he has allowed the golden chances to become public property, and has thus remained poor himself, while the world has reaped the advantage of his labours.
'Mr. Dancer is now in his 74th year, and we beg respectfully to suggest that in this hour of darkness the world should pay back to him something for that which it has freely received at hands.
'We propose that a subscription be commenced forthwith, with the object of purchasing an annuity, payable during the joint lives of himself and Mrs. Dancer.
'We are willing to form the nucleus of a committee for carrying out this project, and invite all friends to Mr. Dancer to join in obtaining subscriptions. Mr. T. R. Wilkinson, manager of the Manchester and Salford Bank, has consented to act as treasurer, and cheques can be paid to his order, or payments to the credit of the "Dancer Subscription," will be received at the Bank.
J. P. JOULE, LL.D., F.R.S., Sale.
Prof. W. C. WILLIAMSON, LL.D., F.R.S., Owens College.
Prof. BALFOUR STEWART, LL.D., F.R.S., Owens College.
JOHN DALE, F.C.S., Cornbrook, Manchester.
LEO H. GRINDON. Manchester.
S. PLATT, J.P., Oldham.
CHARLES BAILEY, Hon. Treasurer Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society.
JAMES BIRCHALL, Hon. Sec. Liverpool Literary and Philosophical Society.
ABEL HEYWOOD, Jun., Higher Broughton (Hon. Sec. pro tem.).'
1841 'Saturday Evening Concerts, &c., at the Northern Mechanics' Institution ..... Mr. J. B. Dancer was then introduced; he came forward in the true spirit of philanthropy, furnishing a novel and splendid addition to the entertainments of the evening by the aid of his oxy-hydrogen microscope and magic lantern, which he rendered highly interesting by his elucidation of the apparatus itself, and of the nature and production of the gases with which its reflective powers were made so beautifully perceptible. A vote of thanks was proposed by the chairman to Mr. Dancer, which was heartily responded to by all present. It is to be hoped that many of our townsmen, endowed with ability, will follow an example so worthy of imitation.'
1865 The Practical Mechanic's Journal of January 1865 described and illustrated an aspirator made for Robert Angus Smith to be used in the analysis of mixed gases, etc.
Dancer placed advertisements for workers in newspapers around the country. Example: ' WANTED Optical Brass-turner. Apply to J. B Dancer, Optician, 13, Cross-street, Manchester.'. 'OPTICIANS.— Wanted a Young Man for Repairing and Glazing Steel Spectacles. Apply J. B. Dancer, Optician, 43, Cross-street, Manchester.'
1880 Advertisement: 'TO SURVEYORS, ARCHITECTS, AND ENGINEERS—J. B. DANCER'S Patent DUMPY LEVEL is the perfection of a surveyors instrument, for home or foreign service. Instruments of all kinds made, repaired, and accurately adjusted. Spectacles and Artificial Eyes carefully adapted. Opera and Field Glasses of the best construction.—J. B. DANCER, Optician to the Prince of Wales, 43, Cross-street, Manchester.'
1884 'MICROSCOPIC PHOTOGRAPHS. To the Editor of the Manchester Courier.
Sir,—In these days of scientific research it is satisfactory to see the public enrolling themselves into societies for the purpose of bringing into greater prominence some of nature's hidden wonders. prosecuting the study of the microscope, it has sometimes surprised me that so little prominence has been given to microscopic photography; in fact, I doubt whether these minute photos receive even the legitimate share of attention they would seem to merit The wonders displayed by them are of a startling nature. It would scarcely be credited, and yet it is perfectly true that printing can be photographed so exceedingly small that no less than four-and-a-half copies of the entire bible could be placed in the space of the front of an ordinary post-card ! " The sermon on the mount" (43 verses) has been photographed in the space of a moderate-sized pin's head, and no less than 117 of such sermons would therefore only occupy the room of a postage stamp. I have read 30 words of a monument or the whole of the National Anthem through the eye of a small needle and yet, placing these minute specimens under microscopic power, every word and letter can be brought back again to its normal size and clearness. Is it not time to be astonished when we can see either a photo of our noble Town Hall or excellent portraits of eminent persons occupying the space of only the 100th part of superficial inch ? The late Sir D. Brewster complimented our townsman Mr. J. B. Dancer, F.R.A.S., on his invention of microscopic photography, and it is a notable fact that during the siege of Paris in the last Franco-Prussian war the French found this invention of great value as it enabled them to send exceedingly minute dispatches carrier pigeons, and concealed also in many ingenious ways ; our continental neighbours, however, omitted giving Mr. Dancer any credit for so timely a benefit.—Yours, &c, DELTA. Manchester, 8th May, 1884.'
1886 'Dr Joule, Professor W. C. Williamson, Professor Balfour, and other gentlemen form the nucleus of committee for carrying out a project for obtaining subscriptions with the object of purchasing an annuity for Mr J. B. Dancer, who was an active photographer in the early days of the art, who introduced photography to the magic lantern, and who, as an optician, successively brought out many forms of microscope with new mechanical arrangements, which have been acknowledged by our foremost microscopists as of the highest value. Mr Dancer, now in his 74th year, is nearly blind, therefore unable to follow the business of his life, and is consequently in distress.'
1887 'A Manchester Optician.—The death is announced of Mr John Benjamin Dancer, Manchester optician to whom many important inventions are due. Mr Dancer was born in London in the year 1812. He settled in Manchester in 1835, and soon made his mark in scientific circles.'
1887 'THE LATE MR. J. B. DANCER.- The death is announced of Mr John Benjamin Dancer, the well-known optician, in the 75th year of his age. His skill had not saved him from the calamity of total blindness.'
Dancer figures frequently in reports of meetings on scientific matters in various Manchester societies. Examples from 1869 and 1886 are given below. He was also a frequent correspondent to local newspapers on a wide range of topics.
Mr Dancer's contributions in these forums highlight an aspect of Manchester life which must have made an important contribution to Manchester’s rise as a centre of scientific and manufacturing development: namely the scope for stimulating interaction between those involved in the wide variety of technical activities going on within that small area. An earlier example of such fruitful interaction was set by the meetings of the 'Lunar Men' - but they could only meet monthly, travelling by horseback, whereas those in Manchester lived and worked on each other's doorsteps.
Two examples below illustrate Dancer's interest in micro-organisms, and in the context of air pollution, Harold L. Platt has credited J. B. Dancer and Louis Pasteur with helping to initiate a gradual change in the emphasis of medicine from chemistry to biology.
'What is Dust? Pleasant Facts to Contemplate.—
At a recent meeting of the Philosophical Society of Manchester, a paper was read Mr. J. B. Dancer, exhibiting results of the microscopical examination of dust. The author stated that he had made some microscopical examinations of dust collected in June, July, and August last, and also of the particles contained in the rain-water after the long drought. The observations so far have shown as might have been expected, that the dust in various localities, at different altitudes, and under other varying conditions, contained particles differing in magnitude, appearance, and quantity for the same superficial area, in every instance molecular activity was abundant, but the animal life was very variable in amount, the largest number of moving organisms being in the dust collected at the lowest points—this was about five feet above the surface of the earth. This dust also contained the largest proportion in magnitude and quantity of vegetable matter. These observations also show that in thoroughfares where there are many animals engaged in the traffic, the majority of the light dust which when disturbed, reaches the average height of five feet, or about the level of a foot-passenger's mouth, consists of large proportion of vegetable matter, which has passed through the stomachs of animals, or which has suffered partial decomposition in some way or other. This is not an agreeable piece of information, but it is a fact. It shows the necessity, in a sanitary point of view, of the streets being well-watered before the scavengers are allowed to commence operations; otherwise the light dust is only made to change its locality and is not properly removed. It is not pleasant to contemplate the possibility of germs of disease being wafted along with this decaying matter, and inhaled by those whose condition might be favourable for its development Microscopical Journal for April, 1869.'
To the Editor of the Manchester Courier.
Sir,—Some of the readers of your journal may possibly feel interested in the following brief account of the experimental researches of Drs. Bang and Storch on the milk of tubercular cows, published in a Scandinavian journal, which has led to the discovery that milk from these diseased cows produced tuberculosis in animals inoculated with it. This is a most unpleasant revelation, when the vast importance of milk as an article of food is considered. It is to be hoped when the experiments referred to become widely known, dairy farmers be induced to have frequent medical inspections of their milch cows, in order to prevent infection as far as possible. It is noteworthy that the experimenters named, found that by subjecting the infected milk to a temperature of 158 degrees Fahr., destroyed the infection in some cases but not in all. Possibly, if the temperature had been raised to 212 degrees Fahrt. the result might have been still more satisfactory. The prudent portion of the community who wish to be on the safe side, when made acquainted with these experiments, will, no doubt, avail themselves of these suggestions for reducing the danger from infection. I have long advocated the boiling of milk order to destroy any objectionable organisms it may contain. My diet at the present time consists of two-thirds milk, which is always boiled. For the past 40 years my attention at intervals has been directed to the microscopical examination of milk for scientific purposes and also for workhouse authorities, &c. Occasionally a considerable variety of pond life—gnat larvae, Daphnia, Cyclopsete—were found in samples of milk sent to me. It easy to divine how these lively objects got imported into the milk. When the late Dr. Angus Smith returned from his tour of inspection through the districts infected by the rinderpest the virus he had collected was handed to me for microscopical examination.—Yours, &c., Manchester, August 4, 1886. J. B. DANCER.
J. B Dancer's business address was 43 Cross Street. Reference to Goad's Plans for 1886 show that this was on the east side of Cross Street at its junction with King Street. Directly opposite on King Street was the Free Reference Library. This was right at the heart of Manchester's commercial centre. In 1886 the relatively small premises were used as offices by insurance companies. This was shortly before Dancer's death, when the remaining business was probably being undertaken by his daughters from their home in Ardwick.
J B Dancer was born on 8 October 1812, in Clerkenwell, London, the son of Josiah and Anna Maria (nee Tolkien). Anna Maria was the daughter of Benjamin Tolkien, baptised 27 June 1779 at the German Lutheran Church, Savoy, Strand, London.
J B Dancer married Elizabeth Barrow.
The following information is taken from census returns, and may contain transcription errors.
1841 Living at 170 Chatham? Street, Chorlton-on-Medlock.
1851 Living at Lime ? Terrace, Crumpsall. Optician, employing 8 people.
1861 Living at Tipping Street, Ardwick, with wife Elizabeth, sons and daughters Joseph W (optician, b. Liverpool), John (optician, b. Liverpool), William (chemist, b. Liverpool), James (optician, b. Chorlton), Elizabeth E. (scholar, b. Crumpsall), Anna M. (scholar, b. Crumpsall), Charles H. (scholar, b. Crumpsall), Catherine, May (JB's sister), and a live-in servant.
1871 Optician Master employing 8 men and ? boys. Living at Tipping Street.
1881 Optician, living at 75 High Street, Chorlton on Medlock, with wife Elizabeth, daughters Elizabeth and Anna M, both photographers, Lily (granddaughter), and two servants.