If you’re an eyeglass wearer, have you ever wondered about the work that goes into creating the lenses that enhance your vision or the history behind the invention of the eyewear we take for granted today? You don’t have to look far to see people using eyeglasses to improve their sight or wearing sunnies to keep harmful UV rays at bay. Where did this marvelous invention originate, and how has it evolved?
Seneca the Younger
Incredibly, there’s no evidence pointing to where the concept of eyeglasses first originated. However, we do have some inkling where the idea behind this wearable tech came from. Historical documents point to ancient Rome as the possible birthplace of glass as a tool for magnification.
Seneca the Younger, who lived between 4 BCE and 65 CE, reportedly used a glass globe filled with water as a magnifying glass for reading. However, it wasn’t until the 13th century that the first reading glasses we recognize as the precursors of modern-day eyewear appeared.
by Tommaso da Modena (1352)
The First Glasses
The first appearance of wearable glasses is traced to the work of medieval monks in Italy. Venetian glass blowers created primitive lenses, called reading stones, that were set into frames of leather, wood, or horn. Monks would hold these like magnifying glasses, or in some cases perch them on the nose (ostensibly to free up their hands).
These reading stones or glasses were documented by Renaissance painters, such as Tommaso da Modena, who in 1352 painted a fresco depicting Cardinal Hugo of Provence wearing glasses as he worked at a writing desk (featured above), as well as Cardinal Nicholas of Rouen using a monocle of sorts. The invention of wearable eyeglasses is attributed to Salvino D’Armate of Florence, who is said to have made the first pair around 1284.
Ben Franklin's bifocal glasses
Courtesy of The Franklin Institute
Over the centuries, glasses evolved with the addition of temple pieces that fit over the ears, securing them better than the nose-perching variety. It wasn’t until the 17th century that variations in concave and convex lenses became popular, allowing for eyewear that accounted for both nearsighted and farsighted needs.
In 1784, Benjamin Franklin is credited with inventing bifocals, which are referenced in a personal letter to George Whatley. Franklin told his friend he was, “happy in the invention of double spectacles, which serving for distant objects as well as near ones, make my eyes as useful to me as ever they were.” Not long after, in 1825, Sir George Airy created cylindrical lenses to correct astigmatism.
The Industrial Revolution saw the birth of mass manufacturing, making glasses readily available to the masses whereas before, handcrafted pairs were designed for the rare few who could afford them. The twentieth century is notable for the explosion of options in eyewear.
As technologies advanced, new materials such as plastic, polycarbonate, et cetera, became available. Sunglasses gained popularity, and eyewear started to incorporate fashion as well as function. Today, we enjoy endless options for eyewear with precision prescriptions to counteract all kinds of vision problems and thousands of styles to suit any personal taste.
Benjamin Franklin's Inventions. (2019, October 16). Retrieved from https://www.fi.edu/benjamin-franklin/inventions
Ben Franklin's Inventions: Bifocals. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ushistory.org/franklin/science/bifocals.htm
Dudley, D. R. (2020, January 30). Seneca. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lucius-Annaeus-Seneca-Roman-philosopher-and-statesman
History of Eyeglasses and Sunglasses. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.glasseshistory.com/
Salvino D'Armate. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.techsciencenews.com/referencetopics/inventor_invention/inventors/Salvino_D'Armate.html
See Into the Past: the Fascinating History of Eyeglasses. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://allabouteyes.com/see-past-fascinating-history-eyeglasses/
The Earliest Depiction of Eyeglasses in a Painted Work of Art. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.historyofinformation.com/detail.php?id=1447