James W. Queen (1811–1890), the son of Irish immigrants, was apprenticed to John McAllister & Son of Philadelphia, to learn "the art, trade, and mystery of a merchant." Queen later worked for McAllister, and as a partner in the McAllister firm, before striking out on his own in 1853, and advertising in the 1854 Philadelphia city directory as "Optician, Importer and Dealer in Optical, Mathematical and Philosophical Instruments." At his death, Queen was eulogized as a poor boy whose rise "to a standing among the staunchest business men of his generation" represented "the triumph of force, industry, and skill over outward circumstances." James W. Queen & Co., as the firm became in 1859, was soon the largest and most successful purveyor of scientific apparatus in the United States. It could not, however, recover from the depression of the early 1890s. Nor could it compete with the more specialized instrument companies that were coming into being, several of
which had been established by men who had learned the instrument trade by
working for Queen. It was incorporated as Queen & Co. in 1896, became the Queen-Gray Company in 1912, and the Gray Instrument Company in 1926.
Mathematical instruments with Queen's signature began to appear in the 1850s, but most of these seem to have been made by W. & L. E. Gurley. In the 1870s, while still agents for Gurley instruments, J. W. Queen & Co. formed associations with several other mathematical instrument makers, and began instrument production in their own building. By the mid 1880s, the firm was boasting that, with enlarged facilities and tools of the most recent form, they had "entered largely upon the manufacture of ENGINEERS' and SURVEYORS' TRANSITS and LEVELS, and other INSTRUMENTS OF PRECISION of the HIGHEST GRADE." This factory ceased production around 1920.
Ref: Deborah J. Warner, Introduction to The Queen Catalogues (San