The history of glasses, from reading stones to photochromic progressives

At first it was the word, and the word was blurry.

That’s because glasses hadn’t been invented yet. If you were nearsighted, farsighted, or had astigmatism, you were out of luck. Everything was blurry.

It wasn’t until the late 13th century that corrective lenses were invented and they were crude and rudimentary things. But what did people whose vision was not perfect do before that?

They did one of two things. Either they resigned themselves to not being able to see properly, or they did what intelligent people always do.

They improvised.

The first makeshift glasses were a kind of makeshift sunglasses. Prehistoric Inuit wore flattened walrus ivory in front of their faces to block the sun’s rays.

In ancient Rome, the Emperor Nero held a polished emerald in front of his eyes to reduce the glare of the sun as he watched gladiators fight.

His tutor, Seneca, boasted that he read “all the books of Rome” through a large glass container filled with water, magnifying the impression. There is no record of whether a goldfish got in the way.

This was the introduction of corrective lenses, advanced somewhat in Venice around 1000 CE, when Seneca’s bowl and water (and possibly goldfish) were replaced by a flat-bottomed convex glass sphere that was placed on top of it. of the reading. material, effectively becoming the first magnifying glass and allowing the Sherlock Holmes of medieval Italy to gather numerous clues to solve crimes. These “reading stones” also allowed the monks to continue reading, writing, and illuminating manuscripts after their 40th birthday.

Chinese judges in the 12th century wore a kind of sunglasses, made of smoky quartz crystals, held up in front of their faces so that interrogating witnesses could not make out their expressions, belying the “inscrutable” stereotype. Although some accounts of Marco Polo’s travels to China 100 years later state that he said he saw Chinese elders wearing glasses, these accounts have been discredited as hoaxes, as those who have examined Marco Polo’s notebooks have found no mention of them. of glasses.

Although the exact date is disputed, it is generally accepted that the first pair of corrective glasses was invented in Italy sometime between 1268 and 1300. They were basically two reading stones (magnifying glasses) connected with a balanced hinge on the bridge of nose.

The earliest illustrations of someone wearing this style of eyeglasses are found in a series of mid-14th century paintings by Tommaso da Modena, which depicted monocle-wearing monks wearing these early pince-nez-style glasses (French for “pinch the nose”) to read. and copy manuscripts.

From Italy, this new invention was introduced to the “Lower” or “Benelux” countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg), Germany, Spain, France and England. These glasses were all convex lenses that magnified the print and objects. It was in England that eyeglass manufacturers began advertising reading glasses as a boon for those over 40. In 1629 the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers was formed, with this motto: “A Blessing to the Aged.”

A major breakthrough came in the early 16th century, when concave lenses were created for the myopic Pope Leo X. Now there were glasses for farsightedness and myopia. However, all of these early versions of glasses came with one big problem: they didn’t stay on the face.

So, Spanish spectacle makers tied silk ribbons to the lenses and attached the ribbons to the wearer’s ears. When these glasses were introduced to China by Spanish and Italian missionaries, the Chinese discarded the idea of ​​tying the ribbons on the ears. They attached small weights to the end of the ribbons so that they would stay in the ear.

Then a London optician, Edward Scarlett, in 1730 created the forerunner of modern sideburns, two rigid temples that were attached to the lenses and rested on the ears. Twenty-two years later, eyeglass designer James Ayscough perfected the arms of the temples, adding hinges to allow them to fold up. He also tinted all of his lenses green or blue, not to make them into sunglasses, but because he thought these tints also helped improve vision.

The next great innovation in eyeglasses came with the invention of bifocals. Although most sources routinely attribute the invention of bifocals to Benjamin Franklin in the mid-1780s, an article on the College of Optometrists website questions this claim by examining all the available evidence. He tentatively concludes that bifocals were most likely invented in England in the 1760s, and that Franklin saw them there and ordered a pair for himself.

The attribution of the invention of bifocals to Franklin probably stems from his correspondence with a friend, George Whatley. In a letter, Franklin describes himself as “happy in the invention of double spectacles, serving both distant and near objects, making my eyes as useful to me as ever.”

However, Franklin never says that he invented them. Whatley, perhaps inspired by his knowledge and appreciation of Franklin as a prolific inventor, in his response attributes the invention of bifocals to his friend. Others took and ran with this to the point that it is now commonly accepted that Franklin invented bifocals. If someone else was the actual inventor, this fact is lost to time.

The next important date in the history of eyeglasses is 1825, when the English astronomer George Airy created concave cylindrical lenses that corrected his myopic astigmatism. Trifocals followed quickly, in 1827.

Other developments that occurred in the late 18th or early 19th century were the monocle, which was immortalized by the character Eustace Tilley, who will be the new yorker what Alfred E. Neuman is for crazy magazineand the cheeky, glasses on a stick that will turn anyone who wears them into an instant widow.

Pince-nez glasses, you’ll recall, were introduced in the mid-14th century in those early versions placed on the noses of monks. They made a comeback 500 years later, popularized by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, whose “rough and ready” machismo denied the image of glasses as strictly for sissies.

However, in the early 20th century, pince-nez glasses were superseded in popularity by glasses worn by, wait for it, movie stars, of course. Silent film star Harold Lloyd, who you’ve seen dangling from a skyscraper while holding the hands of a large clock, wore round, full-rimmed, horn-rimmed glasses that caught on in part because they restored the temples to the frame.

Fused bifocals were introduced in 1908, improving on the Franklin-style design by fusing the distance and near vision lenses. absorb ultraviolet and infrared light. Another reason for the popularity of sunglasses is that glamorous movie stars were photographed wearing them.

The need to adapt 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 various colors, and the new style of women’s glasses, called cat-eye because of the pointed edges of the frame, made glasses a women’s fashion statement.

By contrast, men’s eyeglass styles in the 1940s and 1950s tended to be more austere round gold wire frames, but with exceptions, such as Buddy Holly’s wayfarer style and James Dean’s tortoiseshells.

Along with the fashion statement that eyeglasses were becoming, advancement in lens technology brought progressive lenses (lineless multifocal glasses) to the public in 1959. Almost all eyeglass lenses are now made of plastic, which is more Lighter than glasses and breaks cleanly instead of breaking. in fragments.

Plastic photochromic lenses, which darken in bright sunlight and return to clear in the sun, first became available in the late 1960s. They were called “photo gray” at the time, because this was the only color they came in. Plastic lenses were only available in glass, but in the 1990s they became available in plastic, and in the 21st century they are now available in a variety of colors.

Eyewear styles come and go, and as is so often the case with fashion, everything old eventually becomes new again. Case in point: gold-rimmed and rimless glasses used to be popular. Now not so much. Bulky, oversized glasses with wire frames were favored in the 1970s. Now not so much. Now, retro glasses that for the last 40 years were unpopular, like the horn-rimmed, browline-shaped wayfarer glasses, rule the optical shelf.

If you enjoyed reading about the history of eyewear, stay tuned for an upcoming look at the future of eyewear!

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