The History of Eyeglasses

It is estimated that more than 40 percent of people worldwide need vision correction to see clearly. Imagine living in a time in which using glasses to correct your vision was simply not a thing because eyeglasses did not exist.

Where it began

In 1021, the Arab mathematician, astronomer, and physicist, Alhazen, in his Book of Optics contradicted Ptolemy’s and Euclid’s theory of vision that objects are visible to us from rays of light emanating from our eyes. 

Alhazen described in detail the various parts of the eye and introduced the idea that objects are seen by rays of light emanating from the objects and not the eyes. A complete turnaround from the current belief.

He described the magnifying property of curved glass surfaces. He correctly explained the process of sight and visual perception for the first time and wrote the earliest discussions and descriptions of the psychology of visual perception and optical illusions. For this and more, he is known as the father of modern optics.

Reading glasses

The earliest record of vision aids are from the 9th century when “reading stones” were described that were made from rock crystal that was shaped and polished and then used to magnify text. Then in the 13th century, glass blowers in Venice and Murano, Italy, perfected a method of making reading stones from glass. In later development, a frame for the magnifying stone was made from wood or animal horn. These became what we would think of as the first handheld magnifiers for reading.

A later innovation was to set lenses in metal or leather mountings that could be balanced on the bridge of the nose. But still these lenses, whether handheld or worn, were all convex lenses for magnification and could only correct hyperopia and presbyopia—difficulty seeing objects that are close up. 

The first glasses to correct myopia

Making concave lenses was more difficult than making convex ones, so eyeglasses to correct myopia weren’t developed until the early 1400s. 

Concave lenses spread light rays out before they reach the eye. They do that by being thinner at the center and thicker at the edges. Viewing an object through a concave lens will make the object look smaller, closer, and clearer.

Availability and design improvements

Glasses in the 1400s were only available to monks and scholars. They consisted of blown-glass lenses set into wooden or leather frames, or frames made from animal horn and then held before the face or perched on the nose.

The first eyeglass frame temples were made by Spanish craftsmen in 1600’s. Frame temples are the parts that go on either side of your head, and in the 1600s they were attached with silk or strings to the frame and that string would loop over the user’s ears.

In China, eye lenses were secured with ribbons and then the ribbon was draped over the tops of the ears and small weights on the bottom of the ribbons kept them in place. In 1727 the English optician and instrument maker, Edward Scarelett created the first eyeglass frame with ear hooks. 

By the early 1800s eyeglasses were common, but they came already made and people had to try on different ones until a suitable pair was found. That was an imprecise process, but it did provide vision aid that had never existed before.   

Eyewear becomes fashionable

The monocle—a single lens kept in position by the muscles around the eye, was popular among high society men in the early 19th century. The lorgnette (a French word for spyglass or telescope) consisted of two lenses in a frame held with a handle on one side, and was popular among high society ladies.

Pince-nez glasses were popular in the late 1800s though the early 1900s and were worn by U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt. Pince-nez is French for “pinch nose” and these glasses had no earpiece supports and sat on the bridge of the nose.

Harold Lloyd, a comedian and actor of the silent film era, made eyeglass wearing popular with his signature round eyeglasses. Lloyd was so popular during the 1920s that wearing “spectacles” became both acceptable and trendy.

In the 1950s the browline—a style of eyeglass frames in which the “bold” upper part holding the lenses resembles eyebrows framing the eyes, and horn-rimmed glasses both became popular, and the 1980s gave us big oversized frames.

Modern advances

Modern advances in lens manufacturing technology have given us photochromic and progressive lenses and almost all lenses are now made of plastic. Antireflective and polarizing coatings reduce eyestrain and improve viewing. And electronic focusing lenses that change focal length electronically, in milliseconds, at the flick of a switch.

Eyeglasses have been called one of the top 5 most important inventions for mankind. Eyeglasses made it possible for millions of people to have good vision in spite of what had been debilitating visual impairments caused by refractive errors. 

Gregory Scimeca, M.D.
Ophthalmologist and Medical Director
The Eye Professionals

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