Have you ever wondered about the history of eyeglasses?
History has no record of who the inventor of spectacles was. However, the earliest documentation available makes mention of several friars and monks who were instrumental in making improvements in the rough models available in the 13th century. Some have attributed the invention of spectacles to the Arabs and some to the Indians.
What is clear however is that glasses, crude as they were, have been around for a long time.
There are records of books on optics being translated from Arabic to Latin as far back as the 12th century. Italian scientists and British writers such as Robert Grosseteste have left evidence showing that there existed instruments used to read small letters from afar during their time. Roger Bacon is credited for having studied and written extensively about the magnifying properties of lens’ in 1262. However, it was only in 1286 that eyeglasses were manufactured by an unknown Italian scientist.
The 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th centuries saw little improvement in spectacles. The biggest developments during this time involved the understanding of just how lenses were able to help improve visual acuity. With this new found understanding, scientists also began to seek ways to improve spectacles.
One of the major reasons why there was so little improvement in spectacles was the limitation of technology as well as the fact that very few people outside the upper classes and religious clerics read. Spectacles were not looked upon favorably and neither were they as fashionable as they are today.
The biggest invention of the 1700s was the creation of bifocals by American scientist Benjamin Franklin in 1784. As a scientist, Franklin was acutely interested in finding a way to improve his own eyesight. He suffered from presbyopia and myopia which made his life very inconvenient.
Other inventions during this century included the development of eyeglasses that featured lens inserts made from cattle horn by Benjamin Martin.
Scissor spectacles were another type of eyewear used by men such as U.S. President George Washington as well as French revolutionary war leader Napoleon Bonaparte during this century.
With each passing century, manufacturers, scientists and eye wear enthusiasts sought ways to better and improve the current model. A few more styles were introduced and some manufacturers began making larger quantities of spectacles.
Peddlers and general stores began stocking spectacles which could be bought more readily and at a price the common person could afford.
The lorgnette was one of the most common styles used in the 1800s. The reason the lorgnette gained popularity was because it tried to bring a bit of sophistication to the spectacles. Spectacles already had a bad reputation and were seen as tools used by the old and infirm to help them see. Hence, with the invention of the lorgnette, which was a hand-held design, more people – women included this time – began using glasses with more confidence.
In fact, manufacturers had become so creative such that they had even started manufacturing lorgnettes in the shapes of fans and even ear trumpets! All this was done in a bid to try and make eyewear as fashionable and socially appealing as possible.
As technology improved, so too did the quality of spectacles being produced. Manufacturers began to experiment with different ways of making spectacles sit on the bridge of the nose. One of the most popular styles of this era was the pince-nez or in English, the pinch-nose.
Hollywood and the emergence of the film industry played a crucial role in making eye wear seem more normal. Thanks to actors such as Harold Lloyd who was famous for wearing his tortoiseshell spectacles all the time, spectacles stopped being associated with the elderly and clerics.
More and more people began seeing spectacles around. Even presidents – Teddy Roosevelt to be precise - began having their pictures taken wearing spectacles. Actresses such as Audrey Hepburn also helped sunglasses become a fashion accessory. Hepburn was known for wearing cat eye style sunglasses often with her outfits. In particular, her iconic Breakfast at Tiffany look has been immortalized and made sunglasses very popular.
Today, eyeglasses are as normal as a wristwatch. They are used as a fashion statement, as ordinary wear to improve vision, or as eye protectors. In fact, nine out of every 10 people will need to wear spectacles by the time they reach 65 years. Despite today’s laser surgeries and the availability of contact lenses, it seems eyeglasses are still very popular and don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.