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A Brief History Of Eyeglasses

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If you stop to think about it, the invention of eyeglasses, or spectacles, is one of the most important things that has ever been invented. Imagine being unable to read or see images and text completely clearly; it would make life very difficult indeed. However, strangely enough, nobody knows who actually invented them.

What is known is that, some time after the year 1,000, someone noticed that convex shaped glass magnified images. The English Franciscan Friar Roger Bacon noted in 1268 that letters appeared larger and could be seen better when viewed through a piece of glass that was less than half of a sphere. He conducted several experiments which confirmed that the convex lens assisted reading.

Not very much later, in 1286, in Pisa in Italy, it seems that the first pair of eyeglasses was constructed. They were created from two convex shaped pieces of glass or crystal stones. Each of the stones was surrounded by a frame of wood, or bone, and given a handle. The stones were then connected with some form of a rivet, so that they could be rested upon the nose. This was then confirmed by a monk from St Catherine’s Monastery, who said in a sermon in 1306 that “it is not 20 years since there was found the art of making eyeglasses, which make for good vision, one of the best arts and most necessary that the world has.”

By the middle of the 15th century, the city of Florence led the way in the production of eyeglasses in Italy and beyond. However, if you consider it, it is not really surprising that the production of spectacles took off in areas such as the island of Murano, also in Italy, which was one of the most advanced manufacturing centres of glass at that time. In fact, the Guild of Crystal workers was officially created in Murano in November 1284.

The 15th century became a crucial point in the further development of spectacles. The invention of the printing press around 1450 meant that people had to learn how to read, and if their vision was blurred, they would need something to help them.

Bi-focals were probably first produced in London by Benjamin Franklin after the 1760's. These were made by cutting lenses of different powers and positioning them in the frame with a straight line across the middle. The top portion was ground so that it provided distance vision, and the lower one was ground to assist reading.

The first optical shop in America was established in Philadelphia in 1799 by a Scotsman, John McAllister, who originally sold hickory walking sticks and riding whips. He also sold the first lenses for astigmatism in 1828, when he and his son began to import cylindrical lenses for this purpose.

The history of eyeglasses is fascinating, and for those who have need of them, is well worth some further research.

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