Spectacles became common after Guttenburg’s invention of the printing press in the mid-1500’s. Printing with movable type meant even common people could afford books and marked the beginning of widespread need to correct vision with eyeglasses.
I started wearing corrective lenses at the age of nine, when near-sightedness began to have a negative impact on my constant reading. I progressed from eyeglasses to contact lenses, then had lasik surgery to correct near-sightedness. Now I’m back to eyeglasses so I can see how to drive, but I don’t need them for reading. Yet. But that day is coming, I know.
The Nimrud Lens, a 3,000-year-old piece of crystal an inch and one-half in diameter, is the oldest known man-made lens. Found in the ruins of ancient Nineveh, it is made of polished rock crystal. Experts are unsure if it was merely decorative or used to improve vision. Archaeologists have unearthed glass lenses in Egypt and Mesopotamia dating back to 3000 BCE ground out from rock crystal, but they were probably merely decorative and not used to correct faulty vision. The same polished crystals ancients used to start fires probably evolved into handy reading stones (magnifiers) for scribes who spent their days reading, writing, and copying documents.
The Roman Emperor Nero viewed gladiators fighting to the death through an emerald. If large enough, the emerald could have been a natural magnifier, but it may also have provided relief from bright sunlight like modern sunglasses. The Chinese have been credited for developing lenses worn on the face about 2,000 years ago, but they were used to protect from evil, not to correct vision deficiencies. Beware the evil eye!
Developed in the 13th century, the earliest spectacles were produced by glaziers in Venice, Italy, but the identity of the inventor is unknown. Lenses in these first eyeglasses were made from quartz or rock crystal and produced by gold craftsmen. The first spectacles had quartz lenses because optical glass had not been developed. The lenses were set into bone, metal or even leather mountings, often shaped like two small magnifying glasses with handles riveted together typically in an inverted V shape that could be balanced on the bridge of the nose.
From the time they were invented, the biggest problem with eyeglasses was the difficulty of keeping them in place on the face. In the 17th century, Spanish spectacle makers tried silk ribbons attached to the frames and then looped over the ears. Spanish and Italian missionaries carried the idea to China where the Chinese attached little ceramic or metal weights to the strings instead of making loops. In 1730 a London optician named Edward Scarlett perfected the use of rigid sidepieces that rested atop the ears, an improvement that spread rapidly. For someone with uneven ears, I bet those sidepieces were torture.
Self-conscious about wearing glasses, French aristocrats generally didn’t use them in public. In Spain, spectacles were popular because it was thought that glasses made one look more important and dignified, probably because they were an expensive luxury item. Affluent and literate colonial Americans imported their eyeglasses from Europe, costing as much as $200 in the early 1700’s. Benjamin Franklin developed the bifocal in the 1780’s so he wouldn’t have to keep changing between two pairs.
In the 1800’s most glasses were sold in hardware stores until jewelers gradually took over the dispensing of spectacles. Methods for determining an eyeglasses prescription didn’t yet exist, so people would try on one after another until they found a pair that worked for them. I wonder how much of their decision was influenced by the style of the frames?
Do you wear corrective lenses? How would your life be different if they had never been invented? What would you do if you couldn’t read because of poor eyesight? Leave a comment!