Wednesday 22 November 2017

Sponsored feature: Who invented your glasses?

From monocles to multifocals

Do you wear glasses? We generally take for granted one of the world’s most important inventions. As you browse through the shelves looking for your next pair of eye glasses, imagine what life would be like without them.

Reading glasses are one of the most important inventions of the past 2000 years. They developed because of the work of artisans like glassmakers, jewelers and clockmakers, along with some of the most brilliant scientific minds over the centuries. Philosophers, monks, mathematicians, physicists, astronomers and chemists played roles in developing the eyeglass.

It’s been reported that Seneca – the Roman statesman, dramatist and philosopher (4BC – 65AD) used a glass globe filled with water as a magnifier to read ‘all the books of Rome’. Around the year 1000, glass blowers in Italy are credited with producing reading stones made of solid glass. These were similar to the magnifying lenses of today.

In the mid 13th century, English philosopher and scientist Roger Bacon reported on the use of reading lenses. It’s unclear whether he was referring to reading stones or lenses in frames worn in front of the eyes.

Most historians believe monks or craftsmen in Pisa or Venice produced the first form of eyeglasses around 1285 – 1289. The magnifying lenses for reading were set into bone, metal or leather mountings shaped like two small magnifying glasses with the handles riveted together to form an inverted V shape that could be balanced on the bridge of the nose.

The first specific mention of eyeglasses is in a 1289 Italian manuscript written by a member of the di Popozo family. “I am so debilitated by age that without the glasses known as spectacles I would no longer be able to read or write.”

Two monks from the St. Catherines Monastery, Giordano da Rivalto and Allesandro della Apina provide the earliest documentation and coined the word ‘occhiale’ - eyeglasses.


1600’s – Spanish craftsmen create the first eyeglass frames. They attach ribbons of silk or string to the frame and loop them over the wearer’s ears. Spanish and Italian missionaries carry the new types of eyeglasses to China. The Chinese attach small metal weights to the strings instead of making loops

1730 – London optician Edward Scarlett introduces rigid temples that rest on top of the wearer’s ears.

1752 – London medical instruments designer James Ayscough designs spectacles with double-hinged temples which become widely popular. He also introduces green and blue tinted lenses to reduce glare.

1784 – American scientist, inventor, statesman, printer and philosopher Benjamin Franklin invents bifocal lenses

1799 – Scotsman John McAllister Sr. opens the first optical shop in America in Philadelphia

1800 – The monocle (first called an eye ring) is introduced in England. Monocles remain popular in Europe among men in society’s upper class throughout the 1800’s.

1825 – English mathematician and astronomer Sir George Airy designs the first lenses to correct astigmatism

1826 – Trifocal lenses are introduced by John Hawkins – inventor, musician and engineer of London and Philadelphia.

1909 – Dr John Borsch Jr introduces fused bifocal lenses, making bifocals thinner and more attractive than Franklin-style bifocals

1958 – Essilor International of France introduces the first progressive multifocal lens, naming it Varilux.


1960’s – Sir Michael Caine

1970’s – Sir Elton John

1980’s – Denis Taylor

1990’s – Dame Edna

2000’s – Harry Potter

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