The History of Eyeglasses

  • It’s been reported that Seneca – the Roman statesman, dramatist, and philosopher (4 BC-65 AD) – used a glass globe filled with water as a magnifier to read “all the books of Rome.”  Around the year 1000, glass blowers in Italy are credited with producing reading stones made of solid glass.  These devices were similar to hand-held magnifying lenses of today. 


  • In the mid-13th century, English philosopher and scientist Roger Bacon reported on the use of reading lenses.  It’s unclear whether he was referring to reading stones or lenses in frames worn in front of the eyes, but he wrote in 1268:

“If anyone examines letters or other minute objects through the medium of crystal or glass or other transparent substance, if it be shaped like the lesser segment of a sphere with the convex side toward the eye, he will see the letters far better and they will seem larger to him.  For this reason, such an instrument is useful to all persons and to those with weak eyes for they can see any letter, however small, if magnified enough.”



Early Reports of the Invention and Use of Eyeglasses


  • Most historians believe monks or craftsmen in Pisa (or perhaps Venice), Italy produced the first form of eyeglasses around 1285-1289.  The magnifying lenses for reading were set into bone, metal, or leather mountings, shaped like two small magnifying glasses with the handles riveted together to form an inverted “V” shape that could be balanced on the bridge of the nose.


  • The first specific mention of eyeglasses is in a 1289 Italian manuscript written by a member of the di Popozo family.  The author wrote, “I am so debilitated by age that without the glasses known as spectacles, I would no longer be able to read or write.”


  • In 1306, Giordano da Rivalto – a monk in Pisa, Italy – remarked in a sermon, “it is not yet twenty years since the art of making spectacles, one of the most useful arts on earth, was discovered. I myself have seen and conversed with the man who made them first.”  But the name of the inventor was never mentioned.  Rivalto coined the word occhiali (eyeglasses) and its use began to spread throughout Italy and Europe.


  • Italian scholar Carlo Dati (1619-76) reported many years later that he read an entry pertaining to the invention of eyeglasses in a Latin Chronicle written in 1313 in a monastery in Pisa.  He described the passage in an essay presented to the Academia della Crusca, a scholarly society in Florence: 

“Among the entries in this Chronicle, under the year 1313, it is recorded that in this monastery of St. Catherine there lived and died Friar Alessandro Spina, a monk of most excellent character and most acute mind, who understood everything that he heard said or saw done.  And when it happened that somebody else was the first to invent eyeglasses and was unwilling to communicate the invention to others, all by himself he made them and good-naturedly shared them with everybody.”


So perhaps it is Friar Alessandro Spina of Pisa, Italy, whom we should thank for the gift of eyeglasses.  



Artistic Evidence of Eyeglasses


  • The first know artistic representation of the use of eyeglasses were paintings by two Italian artists in 1352.  Tommaso da Modena painted a series of frescoes depicting monks reading and writing manuscripts.  One monk holds a magnifying glass, but another wears spectacles perched on his nose. 


  • The same year, Crivelli painted Hugh of St. Cher, depicting a subject wearing eyeglasses.



Eyeglasses for Nearsightedness


  • Eyeglasses for distance vision appeared sometime in the early 1400’s. In his letter to Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici of Florence dated August 25, 1451, Ardouino da Baesse of Ferra mentions that he received four pairs of spectacles, and that three of these were for “distance vision.”


  • It has also been reported that Pope Leo X (1475-1521), who was very nearsighted, wore eyeglasses with concave lenses for hunting and claimed they enabled him to see better than his companions. 



Other Highlights in the History of Eyeglasses 


1600’s      Spanish craftsmen create the first eyeglass frame temples.  They attach ribbons of silk or strings to the frame and loop them over the wearer’s ears.  Spanish and Italian missionaries carry the new types of eyeglasses to China.  The Chinese attach small metal weights to the strings instead of making loops.

1730         London optician Edward Scarlett introduces rigid temples that rest atop the wearer’s ears.

1752         London medical instruments designer James Ayscough designs spectacles with double-hinged temples, which become widely popular.  He also introduces green and blue tinted lenses to reduce glare.

1784         American Benjamin Franklin invents bifocal lenses.

1799         Scotsman John McAllister, Sr. opens the first optical shop in America in Philadelphia.

1800         The monocle (first called an eye ring) is introduced in England.  Monocles remain  popular in Europe among men in society’s upper class throughout the 1800’s.

1825         Englishman Sir George Airy designs the first lenses to correct astigmatism.

1826         Trifocal lenses are introduced by John Hawkins – inventor, musician, and engineer of London and Philadelphia.

1909         Dr. John Borsch, Jr. introduces fused bifocal lenses, making bifocals thinner and more attractive than Franklin-style bifocals.

1958         Essilor International of France introduces the first progressive multifocal lens, naming it Varilux.




Drewry, Richard D. Jr., M.D.  “What Man Devised That He Might See.”

Fleischman, David A., M.D.  “Eyeglasses Through the Ages.”

Keeney Arthur H., Hagman, Robert E., Fratello, Cosmo J. Dictionary of Ophthalmic Optics Butterworth-Heinemann 1995.

Lindberg, David C. “Lenses and Eyeglasses.” Dictionary of Middle Ages. Vol. 11. Ed: Strayer, JR. Charles Scribner 1986.

Rosen, Edward. “The Invention of Eyeglasses.” Journal of the History of Medicine: January 1956.

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