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For thousands of years, humans have been placing one thing or another in front of their faces to improve their vision. Early Inuit people needed to fight the intense glare of vast snowscapes; Roman emperors struggled to block the sun disrupting their view of gladiators; and scholarly monks needed to be able to see the texts they were illuminating. The history of eyeglasses is fairly well known. But what about those earliest contraptions? What materials were used to make these first eyeglasses?

Stone, Bone, And Wood?

In that distant and mysterious past, it seems folks tended to use rocks, bones, and wood to help them see better. No, seriously. The first mechanical efforts to aid sight were mainly to shade the eye. As mentioned, Inuits created a form of snow goggle, usually out of driftwood, bone, or antler, carved to fit the face, with narrow viewing slits through the front. While these goggles were mainly used to reduce glare, they also helped improve visual acuity. Aesthetically, they looked pretty cool, too. But the wide slits were functional—the wider the slit, the wider the field of view.

Ancient Egyptians, drawings suggest, used clear pieces of crystal they’d ground and polished to view objects, but it’s doubtful they understood anything about magnification. Renowned Roman scholar Seneca the Younger (4 BCE-65 CE) is said to have read every book in town with the aid of a glass bowl of water to magnify texts. And infamous emperor Nero (37-68 CE) upped the ante a little by holding an emerald to his eye so he could better appreciate what the gladiators were doing to each other in the blinding sunshine. It’s likely, though, that the emerald only provided shade rather than increased clarity—the green color filtered the sunlight.

Several hundred years passed before Abbas Ibn Firnas (810-887 CE), inventor, poet, physician, musician, and all-around smart person contributed a major advancement. Among his many projects were experiments with glass which he polished into “stones” used to aid viewing. These “reading stones” were eventually made of quartz or beryl and glass.

In another part of the world, the Visby lenses were a collection of lens-shaped quartz objects discovered in Viking graves on an island off the coast of Sweden. They date to around the year 1000. It has been suggested that these lenses functioned like reading stones, were used to start fires, or perhaps as part of a telescope—no one is certain.

The first spectacles are generally thought to have been fabricated in Venice, Italy some time between 1268 and 1289. These eyeglasses used quartz lenses, rather than glass, because optical glass hadn’t yet been invented. Believed to have been produced by gold craftsmen, these lenses were held in frames made of either bone, wood, or even leather. Like a pair of small magnifying glasses riveted at the handles, they rested on the bridge of the nose.

In the 1600s, Spanish designers used silk ribbon that could be looped around the ears to keep the spectacles in place. Missionaries brought these spectacles to China where the Chinese developed a design that used hanging weights instead of ribbon loops. And in the 18th century, the first rigid side-pieces were invented that rested on the ears. From that point on, the materials most used were glass and metal until the advent of plastic frames in the twentieth century.  

While we can only speculate about what life was like in the distant past, we know that for a very long time resourceful humans have used the materials and technologies immediately available to them to devise ways of improving their vision.

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