Crystal-Clear Vision – The Ancient History of Eyeglasses

Eyeglasses are an essential tool for thousands of people across the globe. Unfortunately, glasses didn’t always exist, which caused difficulties for those in the ancient past with poor vision. However, the Romans made significant steps towards the correction of vision problems when they discovered that different thicknesses of glass could cause changes in clarity when looking through them. Because of this discovery, eye health has advanced, first from glasses to contacts and now from eyewear to surgical options such as LASIK.

The road from the first creation of glasses to modern ophthalmology was a long one. In this article, we’re going to look into the past to see just how far glasses have come since the Romans. How did the Romans make this discovery in the first place, and how did they navigate crafting glasses for each unique person? And how long did this discovery take to spread across the globe?

Blown Glass Lenses and Handcrafted Frames

The Romans were the first people on record to have created eyeglasses. Roman civilization discovered at some point in history that they could use certain types of glass to magnify objects. The earliest record of this is from Seneca, a Roman tragedian who lived between 4 BC and 65 AD, who reportedly used a glass globe full of water to magnify the text in his books. Decades later, we have evidence that Roman glassblowers were commissioned to make different types of glass spheres that could be used on text to make it larger and clearer to read. These glass spheres were traditionally used by monks in the Middle Ages so they could read religious texts more easily.

Alongside the creation of these spheres, some individuals began embedding these spheres into frames that could be put over their eyes throughout Pisa, Venice, and Florence. Because each person’s vision is different, glassblowers began to experiment with producing spheres of different thickness to change their magnifying abilities. These magnifying lenses were inserted into frames made of animal horn, wood, or leather to be held in front of the face. Other styles were designed to be perched carefully on the nose.

Much of our knowledge about these developments in glasses comes from the observation of Renaissance paintings containing people using handheld or perch glasses. An example of this is Tommaso da Modena’s 1352 fresco cycle of 40 different Dominican scholars at their desks. One painting contains a man using a handheld magnifying glass, and another contains a man using a set of glasses perched atop his nose. It is believed that this is the earliest known painting depicting the use of true glasses.

Beyond handheld lenses and perched frames, these glass lenses were also sometimes inserted into leather straps or metal bands. These bands were then strapped around the back of the head to keep hands-free glasses more securely on the face. As more pairs were being made, the craftsmanship improved, with lenses and frames becoming thinner, lighter, and more comfortable over time. As glasses became more popular, early optometrists would work with glassblowers to help customize lenses to fit patients’ specific vision needs. However, these customized glasses were typically quite expensive because of the time and effort involved to create them, so customized glasses were normally reserved for the wealthy.

Interestingly, there is no evidence of women using these early pairs of glasses. Because lenses at the time were used to magnify rather than to clarify, most of the glasses produced were for farsighted individuals so they could read. Since women were not permitted to be literate during this time, they had no societal need for glasses. Even after women became more literate, the cost of glasses was still so expensive that only religious scholars, political leaders, or other wealthy individuals used them.

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