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The History of Eyewear

Posted on August 28 2015

Glasses have a fascinating history that stretches back centuries and features many brilliant inventions and developments. Vision assistance using glass magnification is a very old practice, dating back to the 5th century. However, it wasn’t until the 13th century that the first reading glasses were invented in Italy. In a sermon in 1306, Giordano da Pisa remarked that it had been under twenty years since eyeglasses were created, which puts the date somewhere in the late 1280s. However, these were quite different from glasses as we know them. They were essentially two magnifying glasses encased in metal, leather or some other material and rested upon a wearer’s nose.

Because of their expense and fragile nature, eyeglasses were usually worn solely by nobility and scholars in the first centuries of their existence. It wasn’t until the 17th century that the first optical store opened in Europe. By then, people had begun to devise ways to make glasses stay on their face, including wrapping ribbons that would attach to the frames around their ears. In the 1730s, a London eye specialist named Edward Scarlett invented pieces to attach to the glasses frames that would run along a wearer’s temples and rest over the ears. This basic design is still in use in most glasses today. At the same time, eyeglasses with a handle (called a lorgnette) became popular in aristocratic circles. These glasses would usually be highly decorated and ornate.

Famous American Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals in 1784 because he became frustrated with constantly having to switch glasses to read. By the end of the 18th century, glasses had become more common, prompting the first optical store in the United States to open. In 1825, an Englishman named George Airy designed lenses to correct astigmatism. Pince-nez glasses, which sat on the nose in a way similar to the original glasses (pince-nez means “nose pinch”) started to be worn in Europe in 19th century before become popular in the United States in the early 20th century.

The 20th century offered a great number of advances in vision correction and eyewear. In the early 1900s, curved lenses that offered much better vision focus were introduced. By the 1950s, plastic started to be widely used in the production of eyeglasses frames, making them less expensive and more lightweight. It also opened up a wide variety of new shapes, and many people began to view glasses as a fashion statement. The 1950s also marked the beginning of contact lenses. More comfortable soft contacts were created in the 1970s before RGP (rigid gas permeable) contacts came out in 1979. RGP contacts combined the comfort of soft contacts with the clarity of hard contacts. The late 20th century also saw the use of lightweight titanium alloys in glasses construction, allowing for sportier and more varied frame types. Today as technology continues to evolve, eyewear keeps changing as well, meaning many more eyewear advances await us in the future.



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