A Brief History of Eyeglasses

As early as 1st century AD people were discovering that certain objects had the ability to magnify. Seneca the Younger, one of Emperor Nero’s tutors wrote: “Letters, however small and indistinct, are seen enlarged and more clearly through a globe or glass filled with water”.

The famous Pliny the Elder once described Nero as using smaragdus “green gem” while watching gladiatorial matches. We are still unclear about what he meant because smaragdus could have been 12 different types of green minerals. What historians agree on is that he was using some instrument to help aid his vision. However, it is not disputed that Alhazen’s Book of Optics (1021) discussed how using a convex lens could magnify an object. Alhazen is regarded as the “Father of modern optics” because of his seven volume treatise about optics, Kitab al-Manazir (Book of Optics). Without his contribution the development of eyeglasses would’ve stalled. Towards the end of the 12th century his works were translated from Arabic into Latin, this is what sparked the invention of eyeglasses as we know them.

It was Robert Grosseteste then Roger Bacon who continued to carry on Alhazen’s legacy in the study of optics. In Grosseteste’s treatise De Iride, On the Rainbow (1220-1235), he writes:
This part of optics, when well understood, shows us how we may make things a very long distance off appear as if placed very close, and large near things appear very small, and how we may make small things placed at a distance appear any size we want, so that it may be possible for us to read the smallest letters at incredible distances, or to count sand, or seed, or any sort of minute objects.

The torch was then passed on to Bacon, when he sent his famous Opus Majus, Greater Work(1267) to Pope Clement IV. Part five of this treatise seems to be influenced by Kindi and Alhazen and was solely dedicated to optics. He discussed and contemplated the anatomy of the eye and brain, and the physiology of eyesight as well as the factors affecting sight. He also wrote about the effects that lenses had on magnifying objects. Part six of his work demonstrated his knack for thinking ahead of his time. He foresaw inventions such as telescopes, spectacles and microscopes.

It took almost 20 years after Bacon’s Opus Majus when the world saw its first pair of eyeglasses in 1286 made in Pisa, Italy. To this day, we still don’t know who is directly responsible for inventing eyeglasses. One reason being they were developed from previous technology, simple glass stone magnifiers. As most inventions are intended to make life easier for us, someone simply framed two of these convex shaped glass/ crystal stones and added handles that were connected to the frame by rivets.

The earliest written record referencing eyeglasses was in 1306 when Giordano da Rivalto, a monk from St. Catherine’s Monastery, said in a sermon “it is not yet twenty 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.” He is also credited for coining the term “Occhiale” (eyeglasses); its popularity grew in Italy then throughout Europe.

Venice became the epicenter of eyeglasses production mainly because the small island of Murano was renowned for its glass production. The guild of crystal workers was established in 1284 and in April of 1300 they embraced the term for the glass discs, (roidi da ogli” or “vetri da occhi”) aka eyeglasses. Venice was surpassed by Florence in the middle of the 15th century as the eyeglasses capital of the world. This is attested to by two letters from the dukes of Milan, Francesco and Galeazzo Maria Sforza dating back to the 1460’s.

The first letter in 1462 states: Because there are many who request of us eyeglasses that are made there in Florence, since it is reputed that they are made more perfectly [there] than in any other place in Italy, we wish and charge you to send us three dozens of the aforesaid eyeglasses placed in cases so that they will not break; that is to say, one dozen of those apt and suitable for distant vision, that is for the young; another [dozen] that are suitable for near vision, that is for the elderly; and the third [dozen] for normal vision. We inform you that we do not want them for our use because, thank God, we do not need them, but we want them in order to please this one or that one who asks us for them. Send them by the post of our couriers directing them to our secretary Giovanni Simonetta. Inform us of their cost so that we can send you the money. Given in Milan, 21 October 1462.

The second letter in 1466 said: Because we earnestly desire to have the eyeglasses as noted in the list here enclosed, we desire that upon receipt of this letter you should endeavor to acquire them perfectly made according to the ages specified in the aforesaid list. Send them in a box, well arranged and separated with attached labels for each category, so that when we receive them we shall be able to distinguish one category from the other. Inform us of their cost so that we can make provision for the payment. Milan, 13 June 1466.

Florence was producing large quantities of convex and concave lenses. They produced these glasses at an affordable price with high quality. They even managed to create the first prescription lenses! By realizing the fact that eyesight diminishes gradually after the age of 30, they began to develop lenses that we progressively graded in five-year strengths for presbyopes (age-related farsightedness) or hyperopes (farsightedness) as well as two strengths for myopes(nearsightedness). Eyeglasses were becoming so popular that they were the premier gifts for high-ranking officials to send out as gifts. Other countries latched on to this new technology and began producing eyeglasses; however, Florence wasn’t dethroned as the mecca of eyeglasses until the 17th century.

The 15th century saw many integral developments for eyeglasses, largely due to Gutenberg’s invention, the printing press. Now that the population had books to read, demand for eyeglasses rapidly increased. Artisans, religious scholars and wealthy people were no longer the only people interested in using eyeglasses. In 1665, The London Gazette was published; the demand for eyeglasses skyrocketed. Eyeglasses were gaining popularity not only in Europe but also in Asia. Missionaries brought glasses to Asia in the 15th century which led to new innovations and looks.

In 1535, Germany established new regulations of the Nuremberg spectacles makers’ guild. Germany had become the production center for spectacles and remained so until the end of the 17th century. Germany was noted for their quality frames while Italy was still producing the finest lenses. All early lenses were convex and spherical until mid 15th century when concave lenses were introduced to the people of Florence.

Ingenuity was drawn from various parts of the world for example; the Spanish are credited with developing a way to wear glasses by attaching a ribbon or string to the frames then looping it around the wearer’s ears, called the thread loop spectacles. Once glasses arrived in China, they were adapted by adding little weights to the end of the string to keep the glasses in place. These simple additions helped to solve the problem of eyeglasses falling off the wearer’s face. The original eyeglasses during the 15th and 16th centuries were the riveted types which were usually hand held and uncomfortable, thus leading to the arched bridge design known as bow specs. Next the extremely rare slit bridge spectacles materialized, giving eyeglass frames more elasticity on the nose bridge. Following this brief trend were the Nuremberg style glasses, the frames were often made from one piece of copper wire wrapped around round lenses. This style was mass produced throughout the 17th century to the early 19th century.

Nuremberg Glasses:

The constant problem of eyeglasses not staying in place was solved by Edward Scarlett of London. Around 1730 he perfected the temple spectacles which had short rigid arms that pressed against the head above the ears. The made wearing glasses more convenient and relevant to the current styles of wearing wigs or having long hair. A few decades after this innovation, eyeglasses with longer arms with hinges in the middle, increased in popularity. In 1752, a fellow Englishman, James Ayscough is credited with inventing the first double hinged temple. He also developed tinted lenses which were popular throughout the end of the century. Multiple design patents were issued through the end of the century, some which even suggested using four lenses to solve various issues.

As the designs of eyeglasses evolved over time, so did the materials used. Lenses were made from glass as well as using rock (quartz, beryl or pebble) crystal. In comparison, TRIOO is using hard resin that is impact resistant and lightweight. Not to mention the 100% UV protection, anti-reflective/ anti-scratch/anti-static coating, definitely an upgrade from cloudy glass or crystal. Frames were made from wood, bone, horn, tortoise shell, brass, silver and steel. Advances in technology allows TRIOO’s frames to be engineered using a variety of materials such as acetate, titanium, carbon fiber, aluminum-magnesium alloy, bamboo and other fine metals. These new materials and methods have increased quality, durability and provide never ending options for new styles.

The next breakthrough in eyeglass technology was in 1784 when Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals to help relieve his myopia and presbyopia. Although advancements in technology may take a while to develop, styles were constantly changing. From Martin Margin’s in the mid 1700’s to monocles and lorgnettes in the 18th and 19th centuries, styles continued to evolve. Another honorable mention is the pince-nez due to its similarity to the first eyeglasses that just sat on a person’s nose. Sunglasses became extremely popular in 1930′s with styles constantly changing throughout the 20th century, largely in part to the use of plastics.

Astigmatism was then conquered in 1825 when English mathematician and astronomer Sir George Airy invented a lens to alleviate this condition. The following year John Hawkins introduced trifocal lenses to the world. During the early 20th century Moritz von Rohr along with a few others developed the Zeiss Punktal spherical point-focus lenses, which remained the most popular lenses for decades. In 1909, Dr. John Borsch Jr. created fused bifocal lenses, making bifocals slimmer and more attractive. Then finally in 1958, Essilor International of France introduced the world’s first progressive multifocal lens.

Even if you don’t need to use eyeglasses we have to consider them one of the most important inventions of mankind. Many people from different walks of life contributed to the evolution of eyeglasses, According to Dr. J. William Rosenthal, “Philosophers, monks, mathematicians, physicists, microscopists, astronomers, and chemists all played vital roles in developing this instrument.” Rosenthal, William, Spectacles and Other Vision Aids, p.489, 1996.

From their humble beginnings as reading stones over one thousand years ago to Google glass, history has seen great changes. Imagine a world where as you get older you lose sight of your surroundings, which used to be a reality for most. Now you have the opportunity to bring the world into focus after just a few clicks. We here at Trioo strongly believe that we are providing a product that changes lives. Visit our collections to see what glasses are right for you.

Trioo Eyewear’s Vintage Collection:

Kriss, Timothy C; Kriss, Vesna Martich (April 1998). “History of the Operating Microscope: From Magnifying Glass to Microneurosurgery”. Neurosurgery 42 (4): 899–907.



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