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The History of Eyeglasses, From Reading Stones to Photochromic Progressives
At the beginning is the word, the word is vague.
That’s because glasses hadn’t been invented yet. If you are nearsighted, farsighted or have astigmatism, you are out of luck. Everything is blurry.
Corrective lenses weren’t invented until the late 13th century, and they were crude, crude things. But until then, what will people with less than perfect vision do?
They did one of two things. Either they were resigned to not being able to see clearly, or they were doing what smart people do.
The first pair of improvised glasses was a type of improvised sunglasses. Prehistoric Inuit wore flattened walrus tusks in front of their faces to block sunlight.
In ancient Rome, Emperor Nero would hold a polished emerald in front of his eyes when watching a gladiator match to reduce the glare of the sun.
His mentor, Seneca, boasted that he read “all the books of Rome” through a large glass bowl filled with water, which magnified the printed matter. There is no record of whether a goldfish was in the way.
This was the introduction of corrective lenses, with some improvements in Venice around AD 1000, when Seneca’s bowl and water (and possibly goldfish) were replaced by flat-bottomed convex glass spheres placed on top of the reading material, effectively becoming The first magnifying glass that enabled Sherlock Holmes in medieval Italy to gather countless clues to solve crimes. These “reading stones” also allow monks to continue reading, writing, and illuminating scriptures after they reach the age of 40.
Chinese judges in the 12th century wore sunglasses made of smoky quartz crystals over their faces so that witnesses they interrogated could not discern their expressions, proving the “unfathomable” stereotype. Although some accounts of Marco Polo’s travels to China 100 years later claim that he said he saw old Chinese people wearing glasses, these accounts have been dismissed as hoaxes because those who scrutinized Marco Polo’s notebooks found no mention of glasses.
Although the exact date is disputed, it is generally believed that the first pair of corrective glasses were invented in Italy sometime between 1268 and 1300. They are basically two reading stones (magnifying glasses) that are hinged to the bridge of the nose.
The first illustrations of people wearing these glasses appear in a series of paintings by Tommaso da Modena in the mid-14th century, showing monks wearing monocles and wearing these early pince-nez (French for “pince-nez”) ”) glasses to read and transcribe manuscripts.
From Italy the new invention spread to the “Low Countries” or “Benelux” countries (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg), Germany, Spain, France and Great Britain. These glasses are convex lenses that magnify prints and objects. It was in the UK that eyeglass makers began touting reading glasses as a boon for those over 40. In 1629, the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers was formed with the slogan: “Bless the Old”.
A major breakthrough came in the early 16th century, when Pope Leo X created the concave lens for the myopic Pope Leo X. Glasses are now available for farsightedness and nearsightedness. However, all of these early versions of the glasses had one major problem — they didn’t stay on your face.
So Spanish eyeglass makers tied ribbons to the lenses and wrapped the ribbons around the wearer’s ears. When these glasses were introduced to China by Spanish and Italian missionaries, the Chinese abandoned the idea of tying ribbons to their ears. They tied some weights to the ends of the ribbons so they stayed on the ears.
In 1730, London optician Edward Scarlett created the forerunner of the modern sunglass arm, two rigid rods attached to the lens and resting on the ear. 22 years later, eyewear designer James Ayscough improved on the temples, adding hinges to allow them to fold. He also dyed all the lenses green or blue, not to make sunglasses, but because he thought these colors would also help improve vision.
The next big innovation in eyeglasses was the invention of the bifocal. Although most sources generally attribute the invention of bifocals to Benjamin Franklin, in the mid-1780s an article on the College of Optometrists website disputed this claim by examining all available evidence. It tentatively concluded that bifocals were more likely to have been invented in England in the 1760s, where Franklin saw them and ordered a pair for himself.
The attribution of bifocals to Franklin likely stems from his correspondence with his friend George Whatley. In a letter, Franklin described himself as “delighted to have invented a double pair of spectacles, which can see both distant objects and near objects, and make my eyes as useful to me as they ever were.”
However, Franklin never said he invented them. Whitley, possibly inspired by his knowledge and appreciation of Franklin as a prolific inventor, credited his friend with the invention of bifocals in his reply. Others accepted and stuck to it, so much so that Franklin is now generally credited with inventing bifocals. If anyone else were the true inventor, this fact would be forgotten.
The next important date in the history of eyeglasses was 1825, when English astronomer George Airy invented the concave cylindrical lens to correct his nearsighted astigmatism. In 1827, trifocal glasses followed.
Other developments that emerged in the late 18th or early 19th centuries were the monocle, immortalized by Eustace Tilley, who would new yorker What is Alfred E. Neuman crazy magazineAnd long-stem glasses, the glasses on the stick will turn anyone who wears them into an instant dame.
You’ll recall that the pince-nez was an early version of what appeared on monks’ noses in the mid-14th century. 500 years later, they’re making a comeback, embraced by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, whose “rough and grown-up” machismo dismissed the image of glasses as sissy.
However, by the early 20th century, the pince-nez was replaced by spectacles worn by movie stars. Silent film star Harold Lloyd wore the all the rage full-rimmed round tortoiseshell glasses, and you’ve seen him hang from skyscrapers with the hands of big clocks, partly because they put the arms at the temples Return to the frame.
Introduced in 1908, fusion bifocal glasses improved upon the Franklin-style design by fusing together distance and near distance lenses. Sunglasses became popular in the 1930s, in part due to the invention in 1929 of filters that polarize sunlight, allowing them to absorb ultraviolet and infrared rays. Another reason why sunglasses are popular is because glamorous movie stars are photographed wearing them.
The need to adjust sunglasses to the needs of World War II pilots led to the popular style of aviator sunglasses. Advances in plastics allowed frames to be made in a variety of colors, and new women’s eyeglasses, known as cat-eyes because of their pointed top edge, turned eyeglasses into a feminine fashion statement.
Conversely, men’s eyewear styles of the 1940s and 50s tended to be more modest gold circular wireframes, although there were exceptions such as Buddy Holly’s wayfarer style and James Dean’s tortoiseshell style.
As eyeglasses became a fashion statement, advances in lens technology brought progressive lenses (wireless multifocal glasses) to the public in 1959. Almost all eyeglass lenses are now made of plastic, which is lighter than eyeglasses and shatters cleanly rather than shattering in shards.
Plastic photochromic lenses, which darken in bright sunlight and clear again out of sunlight, were first introduced in the late 1960s. At the time they were called “photo gray” because that was the only color they appeared in. Plastic lenses only came in glass, but in the 1990s they started to come in plastic, and in the 21st century they now come in a variety of colors.
Eyewear styles come and go, and as is often the case in fashion, what is old eventually becomes new. Case in point: gold-rimmed and rimless glasses were once in vogue. Not so much anymore. Oversized, bulky wire-frame glasses were popular in the 1970s. Not so much anymore. Now, the unloved retro glasses of the past 40 years, such as wayfarer, corner frame and brow liner glasses, rule the optical frame.
If you enjoy reading about the history of eyewear, stay tuned for an upcoming look at the future of eyewear!
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