The Sunday Leader

Evolution of spectacles

By Dr. M.H.C.J. Ian

The development of spectacles has in many ways paralleled the evolution of civilization. Some authorities believe that a Chinese emperor used spectacles as early as 2283 B.C., not for vision correction but as a badge of knowledge and authority. The first definite proof of existence of spectacles dates back to the 13th century. Roger Bacon, and English Monk philosopher is said to be the pioneer lens designer (1268). However, the invention of spectacles is generally credited to Salvino d’ Armati of Florence, Italy in 1285 whose tombstone reads, “Here lies the inventor of spectacles.”

As time progressed, spectacle makers made the lenses, the holder or “frame” (usually of metal, wood, or leather), and sold the product from a tray on city streets or at fairs Lens selection was made by the customer and, since the first lenses were plus or convex, nearly all of them were used as reading glasses. It was not until the 16th century that minus or concave lenses were developed for the correction of myopic eyes (nearsightedness).

After the 16th century few advances were made in spectacle lens manufacturing until the 19th century, when toric lenses wee developed (1840-1844). Suscipi a Roman Optician, ground toric lenses for the correction of astigmatism. By the 1850s, McAllister, a Philadephia Optician was also offering toric lenses. Since that time, the quality and adaptability of lenses has improved dramatically from the simple toric lens to the present day corrected curve lens.

It wasn’t until the early 1700s (1727-1739) that temples were perfected. Finally the spectacle wearer of steel, were short and pressed firmly against the head. Their invention of perfection is generally credited to Edward Scarlett, a London optician.

By 1784, Benjamin Franklin had his optician split a pair of distance gasses and reading glasses and made the first bifocals. Even with this improvement, Franklin’s writing indicated that the lens power was still the wearer’s choice. From the Franklin bifocals, the quality of lenses has steadily improved to the present day fused and one-piece bifocal and trifocals or progressive power lenses.

In the early years, spectacles were often crude, ugly and more than likely uncomfortable, and were worn primarily by the elderly and infirm. When used by the wealthy, the spectacles were probably famed in real gold or sterling silver and carried in a leather covered, silk-lined case. Prominent ladies would stare through engraved hand-held eyeglasses at lower-class people while the wealthy male used a monocle or lorgnette.

The poor generally used ready-made, steel-rimmed spectacles with oval lenses and wire hooks for the ears. The young rarely used spectacles because of their ugly look.

Fashion or cosmetic dispensing of spectacles, as we call it, came in to existence in the middle 1930s with the introduction of plastic frames which included such innovations as different designs and colours. With the new plastic frames, women’s spectacles were designed differently from men’s and could be recognized as such. Modern fashion dispensing had arrived.

(The writer is an optometrist and contact lens practitioner. He is Managing Director, British Optical Co. Negombo and Imm, Past Chairman, Sri Lanka Optometric Association.)

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