Friday, June 19, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #111: The History of Eyeglasses

A dear friend who is also blind as hell recently asked me what people did before they invented eyeglasses.

“Well, glasses were invented in like 1300 so they probably just wore glasses,” I said, pulling what I now know was a completely accurate tidbit of information right out of my ass.

“No, I mean, before that,” he replied.

“Oh, I don’t know, squinted a lot I guess,” is what I would have said if I were half as clever as I let on. According to poster Kathleen Grace, “They didn’t do much, they just tried to cope as well as they could.” While ordinary people may well have been reduced to squinting, holding things really close to their face, and feeling around for stuff on tables, but lucky for them, there weren’t a lot of things in their daily lives that required sharp vision. Books were uncommon and widespread illiteracy meant that most people didn’t need to write, either. Neither was there any driving. But now that I think of it, I wonder if all those alleged “blind people” that Jesus healed in the Bible weren’t just really, really myopic.

Seneca the Younger noted that “Letters, however small and indistinct, are seen enlarged and more clearly through a globe or glass filled with water.” The Roman Emperor Nero used an emerald as a corrective lens to watch the gladiatorial contests. Lenses made of rock crystal, such as the Nimrud lens, have been in use for at least 3,000 years, but it is unclear whether these ancient lenses were used for magnification or simply as burning lenses à la Lord of the Flies.

Both uses are legit:
Photo of the Nimrud lens in the British Museum by user Geni from Wikipedia Commons.

The first mention of a convex lens used to produce a magnified image appears in 1021 in Alhazen’s Book of Optics. By the 11th or 12th century, Vikings were crafting rock crystal lenses capable of producing imaging quality on a par with 1950s technology. “Reading stones” made of glass became common in the scriptoriums of European monasteries between the 11th and 13th centuries, as they helped nearsighted monks work on illuminated manuscripts.

By the early 1200s, the imaging properties of lenses were well-known. In China, sunglasses made of smoky quartz had already been invented, and in the Arctic, the Inuit were already using snow goggles. Eyeglasses were invented in Italy sometime between 1286 and 1306, according to a 1306 sermon by Dominican friar Giordano de Pisa, who mentioned that “It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making eyeglasses.” It should be noted that Marco Polo claims to have seen glasses in China as early as 1275, though it is unclear whether those glasses were for vision correction or just to look cool. By 1301, guilds in the glass making city of Venice had established regulations governing the lawful sale of eyeglasses.

Earpieces would not be invented until much later. Early pairs of glasses had to be held in place with the hand, as depicted in this Renaissance-era painting, Seated Apostle Reading While Feeling Annoyed as Hell:

"I wish Jesus would heal me of my blindness already so I could hold this anachronistic book with both hands."

Pince-nez style glasses stayed in place on their own by pinching the nose, hence the name (which is French for “pinch nose” for you non-Francophones readers). Modern-style glasses with clearly superior temple earpieces had been invented by at least the 17th century, as they were depicted in this circa-1600 El Greco painting of Fernando Nino de Guevara:

However, the modern style of glasses did not catch on immediately due to what many considered their sheer ugliness. Four-eyed freaks like George Washington, Napoleon, and Lafayette preferred ornate French-style binocles-ciseaux (“scissor glasses”) like these, which date from 1805:

Lorgnettes, or spectacles with a long handle, became popular in the 19th century, especially among fashionable ladies, although these were considered more like jewelry than corrective eyewear. Today, Wikipedia notes that “glasses remain very common, as their technology has improved.”

No shit.