Optical Connections: Secret optical spiders

David Baker reveals the hidden history of war time optics when Yorkshire spiders were pressed into service to solve a an urgent munitions problem

Imagine turning up for the practical examination of the SMC(Tech), say, and reading the following as the first task to perform: ‘Go outside and gather spiders, then return and extract their silk thread.’ In fact, these were the exact instructions given to Ken Bass, an optical technician, and other staff at a Leeds-based optical manufacturer during the early days of the Second World War. It is stretching things a little to say that those spiders won the Allies the war, but they certainly made an important contribution to the war effort.

What on earth could those arachnids have had to do with optical manufacturing? The story of the secret spiders, and how the unique property of their silk was used to great effect in the manufacture of gun-sights, only came to light in 2015 when Bass recounted the firm’s wartime exploits to the media.

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