In this day and age we take it for granted that if our vision is poor, it can be corrected with eyeglasses or contact lenses. This was not always the case. In the beginning of human life, for those people who were myopic, hyperopic or even presbyopic, the world was a blur.
In ancient Rome, the emperor Nero’s tutor Seneca, bragged that he could read books through a large glass bowl filled with water, which magnified the print. It was shortly after, around 1000 AD, that the very first visual aid was invented and called a reading stone. This reading stone was a glass sphere that was laid on top of the reading material to magnify the letters.
The first pair of corrective eyeglasses were made in Italy somewhere between 1268 and 1300. The first glasses were quite rudimentary and crude. They basically were comprised of two reading stones set in bone, wooden or leather frames that were either held in front of the face or perched on the nose. Glass blowers would make the lenses thinner or thicker, based on how much magnification was required.
An important development ensued in the early 16th century when concave lenses were created for the nearsighted Pope Leo X, allowing myopic people the ability to see clearly.
The next hurdle in eyeglass history was to manufacture a frame that would firmly stay on the head. This was accomplished in a very elementary way in 1730 by a London Optician who attached two rigid rods to the lenses and rested on top of the ears. Approximately a quarter century later these rods were refined to become a more modern day temple with hinges that enabled them to fold.
Benjamin Franklin is generally credited for the invention of bifocals in the late 1700’s, although there are those who question that, saying that they were invented in England in the 1760’s and Franklin saw them there and brought them across the ocean for himself. The lenses for distance and close up were cut in half and placed on the same frame together. Benjamin Franklin called his glasses “double spectacles”. The name bifocals came to fruition when trifocals were invented by John Isaac Hawkins in 1824. The trifocals allowed an individual to focus on three different distances. Around the same time cylindrical lenses were produced that could correct astigmatism.
As for frame styles, pince-nez glasses, that were introduced in the mid-14th century, made a comeback in the 19th century, popularized by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt. Monocles and lorgnettes (eyeglasses on a stick) were also developed around the same time. By the early 20th century the availability of plastic molded into frames allowed a change from metal, wood and horn frames, to new styles and shapes in full frames. Round tortoise shell glasses became all the rage for those emulating some silent film stars.
Sunglasses became popular in the 1930’s, in part because of the advent of polarized lenses, and in part made popular by glamorous movie starts wearing them. During World War 11 the aviator style of sunglasses were adapted for pilots to wear. Around the same time, advances in plastics allowed for frames to be made in a variety of colors and shapes. “Cat-eye” glasses became the rage for women as a feminine fashion statement.
A major advancement in lenses came about in 1959 with the advent of the no-line multifocal lenses, or progressive lenses. Photochromatic lenses, that turned dark in sunlight and clear indoors, first became available in the late 1960’s. They were called photogrey and were glass lenses only and available in grey initially. With the introduction of plastic lenses in the 1980’s, plastic photochromatic lenses were produced in the 1990’s and available in brown or grey. Modern technology continues to make improvements on an ongoing basis. Plastic photchromatic lenses are now available in a variety of colors, newest RX lenses are now digitally enhanced for the sharpest vision and protective coatings continue to make advancements.
As for eyeglass style trends, they come and go. Often what is old becomes new again.