In Brief

The sight of some binoculars in Yeates and Son makes Bloom think of a pair he owns that have stopped working properly, and then of their country of origin: "Must get those old glasses of mine set right. Goerz lenses six guineas. Germans making their way everywhere. Sell on easy terms to capture trade. Undercutting." He may be right that German manufacturers have engaged in aggressive pricing strategies, but the important larger context is that their high-quality exports were taking the world by storm at the turn of the century, threatening to overtake the economic ascendancy that Britain had achieved in the 19th century.

Read More

C. P. Goerz was a German optical manufacturer founded in Berlin by Carl Paul Goerz in 1886. The company specialized in cameras, photographic lenses, and telescopic sights for sporting rifles, but it also made binoculars, called "fieldglasses" in Ulysses. For decades Germany had led Europe in the production of fine optical devices: microscopes, telescopes, ophthalmic instruments, measuring tools, cameras, binoculars. Goerz binoculars were very well regarded, and innovative. Yeates & Son advertised their "famous prismatic fieldglasses," a Goerz design. More than a century later, people who own these glasses still prize them, and Simon Spiers, whose flickr photograph is displayed here, notes that "The internals are easy to clean as the prisms have wedges to lock them in place, also making alignment a doddle"––i.e., easy. So Bloom has fair hopes of getting his "set right."

German manufacturing was booming at the turn of the century, spurred by rapid growth in crucial heavy industries like steel and chemicals. In "The panopticon of Germany’s foreign trade, 1880–1913: New facts on the first globalization," European Review of Economic History 26 (2022): 479-507, Wolf-Fabian Hungerland and Nikolaus Wolf note that the value of German exports was rapidly approaching that of British ones, going from 47% in 1880 to 95% in 1913. Slote finds a similar assessment in Ivan T. Berend's An Economic History of Twentieth-Century Europe, 2nd ed. (2016). Berend emphasizes the bedrock of science education that underlay this economic miracle: "Already at the turn of the century Germany was the first to build an industrial core that would become typical of twentieth-century Europe.... Germany successfully challenged Britain's leading position and created one of the world's strongest engineering industries.... Superb science and technology education helped to build a labor force that formed the bedrock of shipbuilding and other engineering branches, which doubled employment and tripled output between 1890 and 1913" (27-28).

Reflecting on Germany's commercial success, Bloom does not consider factors like education, industrial policy, and national pride. As a citizen of an established empire being outcompeted by a rising one, he instead thinks suspiciously of pricing strategies. It seems possible that his belief that German firms "Sell on easy terms to capture trade" has some basis in fact, as Asian manufacturers have frequently practiced this strategy in recent times to break into markets: undercut domestic sales with much cheaper makes, capture a large market share, and then increase revenue by making bigger, better, and more expensive products. There is no moral opprobrium in such a strategy, and Bloom perhaps does not see any. But he does seem to be missing the larger picture of Germany's rise to industrial greatness.

Other people in 1904 Dublin recognize the arrival of an empire that may challenge Britain's claim to world dominance. In Eumaeus, the ultra-nationalistic keeper of the cabman's shelter declares that "mighty England" is heading for a comeuppance: "There would be a fall and the greatest fall in history. The Germans and the Japs were going to have their little lookin, he affirmed."

JH 2023
Prismatic binoculars manufactured by the Goerz company ca. 1895-98.
Simon Spiers' 2009 photograph of Goerz prismatic binoculars manufactured in 1911. Source:
  German gross domestic product per capita from 1500 to 2018.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.