How Were Eyeglasses Invented?

Published: 12th September 2011
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Wikipedia defines eye glasses as: "...frames bearing lenses worn in front of the eyes, normally for vision correction or eye protection." Simple description for a simple vision aid that is used the world over by people in all walks of life. Glasses are accepted as being part of life, some people will need them and others won't and glasses. Vision care has become a major industry and glasses are a fashionable accessory, both for those that require them in order to see and those that do not. Vision care continues to evolve - a laser can now reshape your cornea and enable you with perfect vision - but glasses are not likely to ever completely disappear. Indeed, the level of sophistication has been aided greatly by both science and technology and vision care will continue to be a part of life for the foreseeable future. But where did glasses come from? History shows that the discovery and evolution of glasses to where they are currently has not always been a clear path.

Remarkably, the earliest historical records or references to magnification date back all the way to the 5th Century as ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs depict "simple glass meniscal lenses". The man who tutored Emperor Nero in ancient Rome discovered that small letters and type were easier to see when viewed through a glass filled with water. Other precursors such as these two examples did appear throughout history but nothing significantly happened until the year 1286 when eyeglasses were referenced in a sermon. The man giving the sermon, Dominican friar Giordano da Pisa, mentioned the art of "making eyeglasses, which make for good vision." His colleague, Friar Alessandro Della Spina of Pisa, began making glasses for anyone who required them and by 1301 there were regulations in place governing the making and sale of glasses.

By 1462 concave lenses were being employed to correct farsightedness, but more advances were on the way. American scientist Benjamin Franklin adopted bifocal lenses in 1784 so as to avoid the need to carry two kinds of glasses with him everywhere since he suffered from both nearsightedness and farsightedness, although claims that he actually invented bifocals is unsubstantiated. By 1825, the very first lenses capable of correcting astigmatism were produced by a British Astronomer, George Airy.

The frames which contained the lenses were also undergoing a constant evolution. The earliest frames were actually held in front of the eyes with a handle and did not actually sit on the bridge of the nose or ears. Eventually, this gave way to a frame that had no arms and instead was held in place by pinching them onto the bridge of the nose. Frames with arms that passed over the temples were likely created in some manner as early as 1725, but the style was not adopted initially and glasses frames with handles were the norm, as were some other short lived ideas, such as frames that would be tied around ones head with a ribbon, which was then secured in place by wearing a hat (!). According to Wikipedia, during the early 20th century, Moritz von Rohr developed the Zeiss Punktal spherical point-focus lenses that dominated the eyeglass lens field for many years.

In the wake of these developments, the science of optometry was advanced considerably. Much of the leap forward in the field of optometry came due to Von Rohr, he made thinner lenses possible and that in turn led to a marked decrease in the distortion of the eye others see when looking at the eyes of a person wearing glasses. Sometime after the Von Rohr advancements, scientists began searching and experimenting for ways not only to improve lenses and correct vision, but to enhance aesthetics as well. This continued refining of aesthetics eventually led to the creation of the contact lens, which in turn led to the advent of laser eye surgical procedures for permanent vision correction. Both of these advancements will not be covered here as they both warrant their own separate essays.

Despite the increasing popularity of contact lenses and laser corrective eye surgery within the last decade or so, glasses remain very common and well established. The technology has improved remarkably, and it continues to evolve. For example, it is now possible to buy frames made of special metal alloys that can be returned to their correct shape after being stressed or bent - such accidental damage to frames at one time meant out right replacement. Most frames have spring-loaded hinges, another advancement that prolongs the life of a set of frames and improves the ability of a standard pair of glasses to withstand the stresses of daily wear and the occasional accident such as dropping or sitting on your glasses. Modern eyeglass frames are also continually improved in the area of fit and weight, largely due to the use of very strong, but extremely light metal alloys. No matter the improvements to the frames and lenses themselves, it is safe to say that glasses will continue to be a part of day to life for the foreseeable future.

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