While no evidence exists to prove the identity of the inventor of eyeglasses, many lay claim to it. The best known of these attributes the invention of glasses to Salvino D'Armati, a 13th-century Italian from Florence. An epitaph found in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in 1841 describes D'Armati as "the inventor of spectacles," but it's now considered a fraudulent claim.
There is reliable proof that spectacles were a late 13th-century Italian development. The first pair of what we would consider eyeglasses appeared in the late 1200s in Pisa, Italy, and looked more like two small magnifying glasses (made with convex-shaped glass) riveted together at the top of their handles.
English Franciscan Friar Roger Bacon wrote about the scientific principles of corrective lenses in 1266, but there's no evidence he applied that knowledge to creating eyeglasses. And before that, around the year 1000, an Arabian mathematician at Cairo called Alhazen authored optical-themed works which earned him the moniker The Father of Modern Optics.
You might have heard that Benjamin Franklin invented eyeglasses, but it's clear they had already been around for some 400 years by the 1700s when Ben Franklin was living. Franklin is credited for inventing bifocals in the mid-1700s. He split one lens in half, with the upper part being made for distance viewing and the lower part for near viewing. Franklin wrote to London philanthropist George Whatley in May 1785, "As I wear my own glasses constantly, I have only to move my eyes up or down, as I want to see distinctly far or near, the proper glasses being always ready."
No one knows when the first pair of eyeglasses were created, but we know the grinding technology to make simple magnifiers existed from the year 1000 AD, especially in regions where glass was already being produced (including Northern Italy). Between 1000 and 1250, reading stones were used as magnifying glasses that you could lay over your manuscript to enlarge the letters as you read. The earliest depiction of glasses in a work of art appears in a 1352 Treviso Cathedral fresco painted by Tommaso de Modena.
Two monks in Italy, however, hailed the new invention of eyeglasses a few decades earlier. Monks Giordano da Rivalto and Alessandro Della Spina mentioned eyeglasses in a sermon on February 23, 1306. Giordano stated, “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 credited for coining the term occhiale, which means eyeglasses.
In the 14th century Florence became a center for the production of eyeglasses. The invention of the printing press by Johann Gutenberg in 1452 opened up reading to the general public. This brought about a rise in the need for eyeglasses, which led to the first mass production of inexpensive spectacles. The demand for eyeglasses increased again in 1665 with the emergence of the first newspaper, the London Gazette.
The Museum of Vision notes that early eyeglasses were mostly worn by monks and scholars. The oldest pair of spectacles ever recovered were found beneath the floorboards at Wienhausen Abbey, a Catholic convent in Germany. They are rivet spectacles, which have no temples, or ear stems, but instead are secured to the face by clamping the nose between two lenses. The Wienhausen eyeglasses are generally believed to date to around 1400.
By the 1800s, eyeglasses were common, but not as we think of them today. Lenses weren't custom made; instead, you'd go to a jeweler, a hardware store, or meet with a traveling peddler to try on different pairs of eyeglasses until you found the ones that worked. And because eyeglasses were seen as a sign of old age, people often opted for handheld devices such as lorgnettes (spectacles with a single handle on one side) or scissor spectacles (where lenses moved on a hinge) instead of wearing glasses all the time.
At the end of the 18th century, Philadelphia store proprietor John McAllister opened the first optical shop in America. But, when the War of 1812 and the trade embargo with Great Britain hindered his importing ability, he began making his own frames out of gold and silver. He and his son also imported the first cylindrical lenses for astigmatism. Antique Spectacles calls him "the founder of the profession of opticianry in this country."
In the mid-1850s curl sides were invented, which were curling wires that went behind the ears. Curl-side frames were especially common for children's eyeglasses because they stayed in place while the child was running or playing.
Various styles of eyeglasses followed, including the pince-nez, which perched on the bridge of the nose. Not surprisingly, they were uncomfortable and easy to lose, but even as late as 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt wore this style.
Modern eyeglasses as we know them—with sides, or temples—were popularized only in the 1920s. Today you'll find thousands of styles of eyeglasses in every conceivable shape, size, and color. The Vision Council estimates there are over 149 million adult eyeglass wearers in the United States (more than half of U.S. adults).
Contrary to what one might assume, the history of sunglasses didn't derive solely from the desire to shield the eyes from the sun. Much like one of their alternative uses today, the first documented purpose of sunglasses was to shield facial expressions from public view, instead of shielding the eyes from sunlight.
The Inuits and ancient Chinese can take credit for inventing sunglasses. In the 12th century, Chinese sunglasses were made from panes of smoky quartz used to dim the light. Inuits used walrus ivory to create goggles with small slits to peer through. Sunglasses similar to what we wear today can be traced back to 18th century English optician James Ayscough, who originally created spectacles with tinted lenses, which he thought could improve vision.
One of the first concepts of sunglasses dates to the 12th century, when court figures in China wore sunglasses with smoky quartz lenses in order to hide their facial expressions. In doing so, the judges could give the illusion of non-responsiveness to the testimonies, thereby concealing their decision until the final verdict.
The first sunglasses made for the public came to light in the 18th century, when English designer and inventor James Ayscough created eyeglasses with blue or green tints. Ayscough believed that the tint could improve vision, and he sold the shades for public use. Though his intention wasn't to block the sun, his invention was another building block in the history of sunglass design.
In the 19th century, a syphilis outbreak emerged in Europe. Yellow and brown-tinted sunglasses were prescribed to people who carried syphilis to counteract a symptom of the disease: visual sensitivity to light.
A milestone in the history of sunglasses occurred in 1929 when Foster Grant founder Sam Foster developed the first affordable sunglasses made for mass production, possible only with the advent of injection molding technology. Foster sold sunglasses on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, and his products soon gained widespread popularity in America. But those early sunglasses did not possess the technology to fully protect the eyes. The company continued to grow in popularity in the 1960s, with their "Who's That Behind Those Foster Grants?" campaign, which popularized the sunglasses among Hollywood celebrities.
Through the mid- to late 1900s, sunglasses continued to grow in popularity. Movies, musicians, and politicians who wore sunglasses in the public eye created a widespread consumer interest, and several other sunglass companies emerged. The science of sunglass technology continued to grow as well, as other features of mass-produced sunglasses began to materialize, including anti-reflective and anti-fog coatings, shatter- and scratch-resistant lenses, UV protection, and polarized lenses.
Following the launch of Foster Grant sunglasses, in the 1930s the Army Air Corps commissioned Rochester-based Bausch & Lomb to develop a sunglass lens specifically to safeguard pilots' eyes from glare. Bausch & Lomb created a sunglasses-specific company called Ray-Ban (short for banning sun rays), which in turn created aviator-style sunglasses made for WWII pilots. Ray-Ban used the polarized lens technology created by Edwin H. Land, co-founder of Polaroid. This union essentially locked down the sunglasses market for the balance of the 20th Century with the advent of the anti-glare Aviator. These iconic sunglasses, the first to filter out ultraviolet light, were soon made available to the public, gaining popularity when General Douglas MacArthur made a public appearance wearing a pair in the Philippines during WWII.
Today's eyeglasses and sunglasses boast an impressive array of protective features their progenitors couldn't have imagined. But they'll forever make a statement about your personal style.
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