According to the International Museum of Surgical Science, the exact date of the invention of glasses isn’t known, but they appear to have originated in the 13th century (the 1200s).
With prescription glasses so readily available to us now, it’s hard to imagine the elaborate journey eyeglasses have taken to become what they are today. Let’s take a closer look at the invention of glasses and how they’ve changed over the years.
The History of Glasses: The Who, Where, and When
Who Invented Glasses?
Most sources agree that it’s unclear whom to credit for the invention of glasses.
Records do tell us that Emperor Nero of Rome watched the gladiatorial games through polished emeralds to see the events more clearly (although he was probably just flaunting his status). And later, Abbas Ibn Firnas finished sand into glass that was then polished and shaped into rounded “reading stones” used for viewing text. But the creator of eyeglasses as we recognize them today is unknown.
Where Were Eyeglasses First Invented?
Eyeglasses seem to have surfaced simultaneously in Europe and China, although many sources believe glasses to have originated in Italy, where glassblowing was a rising craft among the Venetians.
When Were Eyeglasses Invented?
Although we can’t pinpoint exactly how long glasses have been around, a record of a sermon given by the Italian friar Giordano in 1287 referenced him having met the inventor of spectacles. This is why many people place its invention in Italy around this time.
The Evolution of Eyeglasses
Thankfully, we’ve come a long way from watching gladiators through polished gems and using handheld glass stones to magnify writing. Check out some of the milestones that followed, moving eyeglasses along their path to our (far more comfortable and effective) modern-day glasses.
The Earliest Glasses
Early spectacles in the 13th century featured rudimentary lenses framed together in wood—a design that was quite difficult to balance on the nose. Instead, the wearer would typically need to hold the spectacles up to their eyes.
When glasses were first invented, they used convex lenses that only corrected for presbyopia (difficulty seeing clearly up close due to aging).
Introducing the Pince-Nez
Around the 14th century, the pince-nez emerged. They allowed wearers to balance lenses on the nose hands-free, but that convenience came at a cost: comfort.
The name “pince-nez” comes from the French words “pincer,” which means “pinch,” and “nez,” meaning “nose.” The pince-nez clamped on the nose using the tension of a spring to hold them in place. (What a pain—literally!)
The pince-nez did make a comeback centuries later, though. The style experienced a revival in the 1800s and was made popular by many iconic figures.
The Printing Press Brings a Higher Demand
The invention of the printing press in the 1430s increased access to printed materials. This, of course, meant a greater need for vision correction. In the 1500s, glasses (albeit poorly made versions) were being produced in high quantities and sold by street vendors.
Lenses were recommended based solely on the wearer’s age. Older people had difficulty seeing things up close, so young people must all be nearsighted, right? (Of course not—we know better now!) The wearer would try on a few different pairs of glasses until they found one that fit best and—just maybe—improved their vision.
The Use of Concave Lenses Is Understood
In 1604, Johannes Kepler was credited with the first accurate explanation of how concave lenses could correct myopia (nearsightedness) compared to the use of convex lenses for farsightedness.
Through the 1600s, things improved…somewhat. Trial lenses in a leather strap could be fastened around the head, giving a bit more insight into the wearer’s vision needs. Plus, now different lens types could correct more vision problems.
Temples Are Invented
The invention of temples (some might call these glasses parts the “arms” on frames) in 1727 was a game changer for the evolution of eyeglasses. In 1750, the first prototype for modern glasses made its debut. The temples of the glasses were so named because they were short and clamped onto the wearer’s temples—they didn’t initially rest over the ears.
The Invention of Bifocals
Tired of switching between different pairs of glasses for near and far vision correction, Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals in 1784. The bifocals divided the lenses into two viewing zones—one zone for distant vision and the other for near vision.
In 1801, Thomas Young was the first person to spot the uneven curvature of a cornea, known as astigmatism. He actually diagnosed this condition in himself, and later, in 1827, he invented cylindrical lenses to correct his vision.
Thinner Frames and Over-the-Ear Temples
Steel wire could be used for thinner-rimmed metal frames after 1837. This thinner steel also led to straight temples that rested comfortably over the ears (finally).
Style in the 20th Century and Beyond
The 1900s propelled glasses forward in style and fashion. From the large tortoiseshell frames of the 1920s to cat-eye glasses of the ‘40s, plastic frames surging in popularity in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and everything in between and beyond—glasses have been through many aesthetic changes.
Today, we have so many different styles of glasses to choose from that we can express our individuality with our favorite frames.
Progressive Lenses Make Their Debut
Progressive lenses were first introduced in 1959. Progressives eliminated the visible lines delineating the different zones of multifocal lenses.
The Future of Eyeglasses Looks Bright
Looking back to when glasses were first invented and how they’ve evolved over the centuries, it certainly makes you wonder how eyeglasses will continue to change in the years to come.
It’s been a good 800 plus years since the invention of glasses, and they started out as handheld lenses framed in wood. What will glasses look like in another 800 years?
The Science of Sight and the Ophthalmic Art. The International Museum of Surgical Science, Chicago.