The Invention of Glasses: It Was Quite a Spectacle
by Meir Sternhill
“Here lies Salvino D’Amato degli Armati of Florence, inventor of eyeglasses. May G-d forgive his sin. 1317.”
Thus read the audacious tombstone of the Italian inventor of one of history’s most important contraptions — or at least according to a churchman from over 350 years later who claimed to have seen the burial register. Historians say the story was likely made up, but regardless, the tale symbolizes the haziness surrounding the identity and era of the person who first designed the device which helps people see better.
Eyeglasses have opened the world up. It has made colors more vivid, smiles more radiant and food more tasty. It is perhaps the only device worn by people that has become so routine that there is no stigma attached to it. An eyeopener and a fashion statement alike, more than half the world’s adult population wears eyeglasses.
When were they invented? It’s a conversation. Pull up a chair, and let’s schmooze.
The first generation of eyeglasses adorned the face of Rome’s 1st century Emperor Nero, who would watch the gladiator games through polished emeralds, claiming the gems helped him see more clearly. Eight hundred years later, the Andalusian inventor Abbas Ibn Firnas created glass which was shaped into rounded “reading stones” — the first spectacle which looks somewhat like what we have today
The invention of the modern eyeglasses is as hazy as a cloudy lens. The International Museum of Surgical Science acknowledges it has no idea of the exact date of when spectacles began appearing on noses. An Italian friar named Giordano in a sermon delivered in 1287 referenced having met the inventor of spectacles, though he doesn’t name him. This suggests it originated in the 13th century, probably created by the Italian glassblowing guilds of Venice.
The earliest glasses consisted of two lenses held together by a wooden frame and was primarily used by the elderly. The “wearer” had to hold it to their eyes when they wanted to read. When the printing press made books available to the world, demand for a device that would help people read more comfortably skyrocketed.
In response, the pince-nez, French for “pinch the nose,” gained popularity since it allowed wearers to balance the lenses on the nose without using their hands. The spring which held them in place, however, caused no lack of discomfort. It was quickly discarded, but it made a brief comeback during the Civil War era, popularized by people such as President Theodore Roosevelt.
The handles, or arms, first joined the lenses in 1727, and it became a game changer for how people viewed eyeglasses. The arms were originally short, merely allowing the user to clamp the glasses to the forehead. About a century later, the arms were changed to steel, allowing them to be extended to comfortably fit over the ears.
It’s been more than eight centuries since eyeglasses were invented. From the original primitive wooden frames to the stylish fashion statements they are today, the spectacle is on the list of mankind’s greatest inventions, alongside the wheel, compass, paper and cars. It was improved over time — Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals, an 18th century inventor created the foldable glasses we have today, English designer James Ayscough created tinted sunglasses in the 1920s, the 1980s saw the introduction of contact lenses, and most glasses today has protective coatings to reduce glare.
Which improvement would you wish an inventor would introduce next to the glasses?