The Story of Eyeglasses! What did people with bad vision do before the invention of glasses?

Today, more and more people opt for laser surgery to correct various eye conditions, while glasses and contact lenses are still very commonly used.

Although much less prevalent, “myopia” did exist in ancient times. So, How did people manage without glasses?

We know that these eye conditions did not emerge with the increasing use of computers and tablets, and there has probably been myopia for as long as humans have been around. Have you ever wondered what people with these eye conditions did before eyeglasses were invented?

The answer to this question is unfortunately nothing!

While modern people are dealing with sweet modern time problems, trying to decide between glasses, contact lenses or laser surgery, our ancestors had to accept, that the only thing they can do for their condition, was to get used to the fact that their vision will be blurry for as long as they live.

Let’s take a look at the advancements that led to the invention of eyeglasses and see how they were invented.

The earliest lens that was unearthed in archaeological excavations was the Nimrud Lens, which is dated to the 8th century BC. It is currently on display in the British Museum. According to some scholars, this lens, which is 38 mm in diameter, is the proof of widespread use of lenses in ancient times. The Nimrud lens may or may not have been used as a burning glass.

The earliest known reference to the use of lenses comes from Aristophanes. It is in his play “The Clouds” from 424 BC. He talks of lenses being used as burning glasses. Pliny the Elder, who is a Roman philosopher from the 1st century, confirms the knowledge of lenses being used as burning glasses.

The earliest reference to lenses being used as a vision aid, also belongs to Pliny the Elder. According to him, the Roman emperor Nero was using an emerald to watch the gladiatorial games. Although we are not certain about it, due to vague references, the emerald may have been carved to act as a concave lens to compensate for Nero’s extreme myopia. Some argue that he used it to reduce the glare of the sun and not for his eye condition. Even if he did watch the games through an emerald, it must have been very low resolution, since so little was known about concave and convex lenses at the time.

His tutor, Seneca once wrote that “he read all the books in Rome, through a large glass globe filled with water, and that it magnified the letters.

The difference between near-sighted and far-sighted people was first expressed by Aristotle in the 4th century BC. The term “myopia” was first used in the 2nd century, by the ancient Roman physician Galen. Despite this knowledge, we still had to wait more than a thousand years for the invention of eyeglasses.

First, there was the “Reading stone”, a modern version of Seneca’s water-filled glass globe. They were widely used after the 10th century. These stones were convex lenses, made by cutting a glass sphere in half.

The reading stones continued to be the only solution for the far-sighted until the invention of eyeglasses at the end of the 13th century. The first glasses were made in Northern Italy, in about 1290. Dominican friar Giordano da Pisa (also called Giordano da Rivalto) said in a sermon delivered on February 23, 1306: “It has not been 20 years since the art of making eyeglasses which provide good vision has emerged. I saw the person who first discovered and practiced it, and I talked to him “. The first glasses simply consisted of two reading stones hooked together. There were still many more years until the concave lenses would be used for myopia.

Although there has been some claims that the first glasses were made in India or China, those claims emerged in the later centuries  and they were not backed with credible evidence. It is known that, since the end of the 13th century, Italy was a very large glass production center and thousands of glasses were carried along The Silk Road to Asia and the Middle East. There were many shipments from Italy to Middle East,  with one shipment as large as 24,000 glasses. By 1301, there were regulations in Venice, governing the sale of eyeglasses.

In the light of this information, we know for sure that Eyeglasses first appeared in Italy. However, the inventor of eyeglasses is unknown. It was claimed that Salvino D’Armati of Florence (Salvino D’Armato degli Armati) was the inventor of eyeglasses, but it was later proven to be a hoax.

The earliest visual evidence of the use of eyeglasses is this 1352 portrait of cardinal Hugh de Provence made by Tommaso da Modena.

The first glasses were heavier than modern glasses and they were prone to shattering. As we mentioned before, early glasses were made to help people read. They were only good for people with Hypermetropia and Presbyopia.

The biggest issue with the early glasses was that they wouldn’t stay on your face. In the 17th century, Spanish eyeglasses manufacturers attached silk ribbons to the glasses, so they can be tied behind the user’s ears. When the Spanish and Italian missionaries introduced this model to China, the Chinese attached little weights to the ribbons, to discard the notion of tying them.

The first model to provide eyeglasses support from the ears was designed by Edward Scarlett, a London optician in the year 1730. In 1752, another eyewear designer James Ayscough, added hinges to the glasses’ arms so they can easily be folded.

Eye exams for glasses didn’t exist before the 1800s. People would try out and choose their glasses from existing models available at an optician or a street peddler.

Long story short, history of mankind goes back thousands of years, but it has only been 200 years since people with various eye conditions could get glasses at today’s standards. Before that: all blurry!

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“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C. Clarke

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