Ancient history of glasses

(ORDO NEWS) — Glasses are an essential tool for thousands of people around the world. Unfortunately, glasses have not always existed, which created difficulties for people with poor eyesight in the ancient past.

However, the Romans took a significant step towards correcting vision problems when they discovered that different thicknesses of glass could cause changes in the clarity of the image when looking through it.

With this discovery, healthcare has moved forward, first from spectacles to contacts, and now from spectacles to surgical techniques such as LASIK.

The path from the creation of the first glasses to modern ophthalmology was a long one. In this article, we’ll take a look into the past to see how far eyeglasses have come since the time of the Romans.

How did the Romans generally make this discovery and how did they navigate in the manufacture of glasses for each individual person? And how long did this discovery spread around the world?

The Romans were the first people to create glasses. Roman civilization discovered at some point in its history that it could use certain types of glass to magnify objects.

The earliest record of this is by Seneca, a Roman tragedian who lived between 4 B.C. and 65 CE, who reportedly used a glass bowl filled with water to enlarge the text in his books.

Decades later, we have evidence that Roman glassblowers were commissioned to make various kinds of glass balls that could be used to magnify text to make it larger and easier to read. These glass spheres were traditionally used by monks in the Middle Ages to help them read religious texts.

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A reading stone at Archeon, a historical theme park in Alphen aan den Rijn, the Netherlands

Simultaneously with the creation of these spheres, some people began to insert them into frames that could be put on eyes in Pisa, Venice and Florence.

Because everyone’s eyesight is different, glassblowers began experimenting with making spheres of different thicknesses to change their magnifying power.

These magnifying lenses were inserted into animal horn, wood, or leather frames to hold them in front of the face. Other models were designed to fit neatly over the nose.

Much of our knowledge of these changes in spectacles comes from Renaissance paintings of people wearing hand-held or false spectacles. An example is Tommaso da Modena’s 1352 fresco cycle of 40 different Dominican scholars at desks.

One painting shows a man with a hand-held magnifying glass, and the other shows a man with glasses fixed on his nose. It is believed to be the earliest known painting depicting the use of real glasses.

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Portrait of Hugh Saint-Cher by Tommaso da Modena, 1352

In addition to portable lenses and frames, these glass lenses were sometimes fitted into leather straps or metal bands. These ribbons were then tied at the back of the head to keep the glasses more securely on the face.

As more pairs were made, craftsmanship improved, lenses and frames became thinner, lighter and more comfortable over time. As eyeglasses grew in popularity, early optometrists partnered with glassblowers to help match lenses to patients’ specific vision needs.

However, such custom spectacles were usually quite expensive due to the time and effort involved in making them, so custom spectacles were usually only reserved for wealthy people.

Interestingly, there is no evidence that women used these early pairs of glasses. Because lenses were used for magnification rather than clarity at the time, most glasses were made for farsighted people so they could read.

Because women were not allowed to be literate at this time, there was no social need for glasses. Even after women became more literate, the cost of glasses was still so expensive that only religious scholars, political leaders, or other wealthy people used them.

Spanish artisans in the 17th century discovered these glasses and decided to use string to tie the glasses to their ears instead of the discomfort of leather or metal straps.

Spanish and Italian missionaries brought many of these glasses with them during their missionary trips, which led to their appearance in China and nearby countries in Asia.

It is believed that although the Chinese had their own form of eyeglasses, they took the idea of ​​a string and instead tied weights to the strings so that they could be draped over the wearer’s ears and remain on them. It was just one of many early eyewear developments outside of Europe.

The next improvement in European spectacles, after their early development by the Romans, took place in England in the 18th century.

Benjamin Martin, a famous eyeglass maker, was the first to create eyeglasses that fit over the nose and sat over the ears.

These glasses were called “Martin Margins” and are still incredibly popular with collectors. They have been designed with perfectly round black-rimmed lenses to protect users from harmful light and reduce glare. Most settings are made of silver or steel, while black rims are made of horn or tortoiseshell.

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Margins Martin of an unknown manufacturer; 1750-1890

It is believed that around this time glassmaking was able to distinguish between concave and convex lenses. This led to the improvement of spectacles for nearsighted people so that they could see at a distance. In 1784, Benjamin Franklin redesigned spectacles to accommodate people who could not see at a distance or close enough to read easily.

This redesign was the birth of bifocals. These lenses were concave at the top for myopia and convex at the bottom for presbyopia. In 1825, Sir George Airy created cylindrical lenses to correct astigmatism.

Other developments were made as the Industrial Revolution progressed in the 19th century. Scissor glasses were designed to fold like scissors and could be carried in your pocket if you didn’t want to wear them all the time.

While eyeglasses used to be handmade and too expensive for all but the elite, industrialism led to the mass production of eyeglass frames and lenses, making glasses affordable for the average working man and woman.

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French Empire gilded scissor glasses ca. 1805

When mass production became the norm, society was able to pay attention to other factors, such as making glasses fashionable. There are new shapes of frames and lenses, as well as different colors of frames.

The use of plastic for frames has opened up more possibilities for different combinations of colors and shapes.

Nose glasses tried to come back into fashion in the form of pince-nez glasses, which were attached to the bridge of the nose with a clip. These glasses were worn by President Theodore Roosevelt, but they fell out of favor with later generations.

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Photo of pince-nez glasses with a rigid bridge of the nose with a chain and a hook for the ears

In order to compete with other styles, some eyewear manufacturers have begun releasing glasses with different lens colors.

This led to sunglasses, which were originally invented in China in the 12th century. The original sunglasses were not designed to protect the eyes from the sun, but rather to hide the emotions of Chinese officials with quartz lenses.

These ideas collided in the early 1900s to create tinted lenses that could protect the eyes of people with medical conditions such as photosensitivity. Over the years, they have become more than just a medical intervention and a preventive form of eye protection – sunglasses have evolved into a fashion statement.

In the 1980s, glass lenses were replaced by plastic lenses due to their ability to make glasses lighter. They also broke less and were thinner so they were more comfortable to wear. Glasses are now moving forward with protective coatings that are added to lenses to protect against UV light, computer screens and glare.

In the future, we are likely to see even more advances in eye protection and vision correction, such as advanced contact lenses and eye surgery. No matter how we continue to correct our vision, the coming years will certainly be crystal clear.


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