The History Of Eye-Glasses
The History Of Eye-Glasses

From Nero's Emerald to Superman's Specs  

Glasses. Superman wears them to be Clark Kent. Spider-Man wears them to be Peter Parker. Not because they take away their power, but because they make them more human. This comparison holds metaphorical weight in today’s context. Culturally, wearing glasses is often associated with weakness, a tool to fix a flaw, which is accurate in theory. However, flipping through the pages of history, with the help of glasses no less, reveals a different perspective. 


Like sewage systems and legal frameworks, the existence of glasses can be traced back to the ancient Roman Empire. While evidence is scattered, it is said that Emperor Nero used an emerald to enlarge or magnify images or text. Other sources suggest that Seneca, a Roman tragedian, used a glass globe filled with water to magnify text in his books. The first written record, however, dates back to ancient times when years were still measured in triple digits, thanks to a rough Arabic translation of Ptolemy's "Optics," a 2nd-century book on geometrical optics dealing with reflection, refraction, and colour. 




Regardless of the debate on who was the OG glasses wearer, they soon became popular in the Roman Empire, with the elites of ancient society commissioning glass blowers to make glass spheres. As time evolved, so did the practices. The spheres started flattening out, evolving into thinner, curvier glass blocks. While no evidence exists of the person who invented frames, 13th-century records from Italy describe an early rudimentary version worn by monks, who were the only people allowed to learn and read at the time. 


While humanity at this point had found a solution to read clearly, reading comfortably was still a task. Early glasses were cumbersome, often made out of thick, curved glass set in leather or wooden frames. Yet again, early elites and enterprising monks took the lead, using their wealth and influence to improve glasses for comfort and efficiency. Soon, a more streamlined version emerged, including early versions with metal headbands running from the bridge over the forehead to the back of the head. Evidence of this can be found in Renaissance art, such as the Portrait of Hugh of Saint-Cher in 1352, painted by Tommaso da Modena. 


Portrait of Hugh of Saint-Cher in 1352, painted by Tommaso da Modena.jpeg


For a while, things remained unchanged until the 1700s. As lenses and frames became thinner, glasses became “hands-free,” thanks to technological innovations emerging from Germany, coinciding with the rise of newspapers. Soon, the first batch of optometrists emerged, providing visually challenged individuals with rudimentary vision tests and collaborating with glassblowers to customize the shape of lenses to accommodate their patients’ vision issues. Not to mention, the early demographic of glass wearers was predominantly men, as women during the early centuries weren’t allowed to be literate. Perhaps metaphorically, the glasses at the time were crafted to address farsighted vision issues. 


Then came Benjamin Franklin, a quite literal visionary, who invented the first pair of “bifocals” a type of glasses made by cutting two different lenses in half and placing them in a single frame, to allow both far & near sight, without needing two different pairs. Over time, opticians would perfect this model, managing to emulate the same effect via a single lens. It wasn’t until the 19th century’s Industrial Revolution, that the intricacies of lens-making could be flipped onto a large-scale production. While they remain relatively expensive, the merging wealthier middle-class adults had the means and the coins to save up and purchase a pair. 




It would take until the early 20th century for manufacturers to shift their focus from a "one style fits all" approach to a more trend and fashion-based one. While Europeans and Americans took their time to reach this point, early records in China dating back to the 12th century mention the first tinted glasses. Historians suggest that the tinted lenses at that time were not used for sun protection or style, but rather to prevent people from seeing the expressions in the eyes of Chinese judges during court cases. 


By the 1980s, plastic lenses entered the market, further driving down costs while also enhancing safety. Today, glasses have become a staple of both men's and women's attire, akin to collars—invisible yet important. Currently, glasses offer a plethora of options, ranging from customizable lens shapes to frame colours. Modern eyeglasses are even capable of taking pictures and displaying information, akin to a car’s heads-up display. 




Today, eyeglasses can be tailored to fit the wearer’s face shape. For instance, rectangular frames complement diamond or oval-shaped faces, while square frames enhance strong jawlines and cheekbones. But regardless of their shape, what eyeglasses represent today is our perseverance in innovation. Perhaps that's why Superman wears them—not to appear weak, but rather to symbolize humanity's finest attributes. 

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