Archeologists excaved some crystal and glass lenses from the ruins of some ancient Greek and Roman cities, most of which are plate or convex. However, these scholars all agreed that the discovery of the lenses could not prove they had been used to correct defects of vision. In fact, at that time people only used them to light a fire or to magnify small signs or objects. These ancient people were not the inventors of spectacles.
Apparently no visual instruments existed at the time of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks or Romans. At least this view is supported by a letter written by a prominent Roman about 100 B.C. in which he stressed his resignation to old age and his complaint that he could no longer read for himself, having instead to rely on his slaves. The Roman tragedian Seneca, born in about 4 B.C. is alleged to have read “all the books in Rome” by peering at them through glass globe of water to produce magnification. Nero used an emerald held up to his eye while he watched gladiators fight. This is not proof that the Romans had any idea about lenses, since it is likely that Nero used an emerald because of its green color, which filtered the sunlight. Ptolemy mentions the general principle of magnification; but the lenses then available were unsuitable for use in precise magnification.
The Chinese are sometimes given credit for developing spectacles about 2000 years ago – but apparently they only used them to protect their eyes from an evil force. In the year 1268, Roger Bacon, the English Philosopher, wrote in his Opus Majus: “If anyone examine 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 towards the eye, he will see the letter 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 magnifier enough”.
One of the most significant developments in spectacle making in the 16th century was the introduction of concave lenses for the nearsighted. Pope Leo X, who was very shortsighted, wore concave spectacles when hunting and claimed they enabled him to see better than his companions.
Spanish spectacles makers of the 17th Century experimented with ribbons of silk that could be attached to the frames and the looped over the ears. Spanish and Italian missionaries carried the models to spectacles wears in China. The Chinese attached little ceramic of metal weights to the strings instead of making loops. In 1730, a London Optician named Edward Scarlett perfected the use of rigid sidepieces that rested atop the ears. This perfection rapidly spread to the continent.
Benjamen Franklin in the 1780’s developed the bifocal. Later he wrote, “I therefore had formerly two pairs of spectacles, which I shifted occasionally, as in travelling I sometimes read, and often wanted to regard the prospects. Finding this change troublesome, and not always sufficiently ready, I had the glasses cut and a half of each kind associated in the same circle. By this means, as I wear my own spectacles constantly, I have only to move my eyes up or down, as I want to see distinctly far or near, the proper glasses being always ready. Evidently the idea of bifocals had already been experimented with in London as early as 1760 (possibly by Franklin himself, who was there at the time though never used extensively).
At the beginning of the 20th Century, Dr. Norburne Jenkins wrote in the “Optical Journal” : “Wearing Spectacles or eyeglasses out of the doors in always a necessity . . . Glasses are very disfiguring to women and girls. Most tolerate them because they are told that wearing them all the time is the only way to keep from having serious eye trouble. If glasses are all right, they will seldom or never have to be worn in public”.
As early as 1845, Sir John Herschel suggested the idea of contact lenses, though he evidently did nothing about it. The practical application of a lens to the eyeball did not occur until late in the century, when F.E. Muller, a German maker of glass eyes, blew a protective lens to place over the eyeball of a man whose lid had been destroyed by cancer. The patient wore the lens until his death, twenty years later, without losing his vision. The term contact lens originated with Dr. A . Eugen Fick, a Swiss physician, who in 1887 published the results of independent experiments with contact lenses.
It has been said that spectacles were in use in China well before they were known in the West. However, studies of early Chinese spectacles show that often the lenses were planar, without corrective abilities, and people may have actually used these colored glasses for cosmetic purposes rather than for astigmatism.