History of Eyewear: 1500-1775


Heavy Metal!

Tired of the same old bone frames?  Do vultures constantly circle overhead?  Do dogs follow you in the street, or steal your eyewear off the nightstand?  Want something sleeker and more stylish?  You’re in luck son because now we have metal frames!

1530s:  The big news from the early 1500s is the introduction of the first metal frames, the oldest of which were manufactured in Nuremberg Germany* by local Brillenmacher’s (Eyewear makers).  Both Nuremberg and Regensburg Germany held the reputation of making the finest frames available anywhere at the time.  The German eyeglass guild also issued their first regulatory code.

1568:  The first known detailed description of how lenses were manufactured was written by German H. Schopper.*

Bow Spectacles:  The biggest technological advances in eyewear of the 1600s were improvements to frames and frame styles.  “Rivet Glasses” although still made, were soon competing with newer and far more fashionable Bow Spectacles.  Bow Spectacles were metal, whalebone, or buffalo horn with round eye-wires, linked together by a fixed arching central bridge and not folding on a rivet.  Some of these bridges were carefully crafted to behave like springs, improving comfort as the eye-wire rested directly on the nose.  Other eyeglasses received finer and more attractive styling details such as filagree or carved patterns and decorations.  “Sides” or what we refer to today as Temples, will not be invented until the early 1700s, so all eyeglasses of this era are still held by hand, a cord of some kind around the head, or the bridge acted as carefully crafted spring and simply gripped the bridge of the nose (later referred to as Pince-nez style). But Bow Spectacles of this era, and least on the frame front, look impressively like some modern spectacles made today and began exhibiting some “style”.

The 1600s:  Newspapers first appeared on the scene in Germany and by the middle of the century every large European city had its own, again driving a need for more spectacles.  As a result, the depiction of eyeglasses in paintings, tapestries, stained glass, and illustrations previously sparse, increased dramatically.

The decline of Venice in the mid-1600s as an economic and military power would push some Murano glassmakers to emigrate all over Europe resulting in improved glass-making in many other countries.

1623:  Spanish Friar Benito Daca de Valdes wrote Usa de los Antoios (Use of Spectacles). It was probably the first book written on Opticianry.  It covered the anatomy of the eye, improvements possible with lenses, the types of lenses (convex, concave, and plano), and their measurements, rules, and anecdotes.

1629:  The first Spectacle Maker’s guild formed in England. Interestingly, they all came out of the Brewer’s Guild. *  The history of Opticians and their affair with alcohol is a love story that continues to this day.  Someday there needs to be an epic poem written in the Norse tradition about this special relationship, but if there are two Opticians (and any noted historians of Ophthalmic Optics) around its almost certain drink of some kind will soon flow. Although one could attempt a joke (history is very serious after all) they simply transitioned from providing beer goggles to real goggles, goggles had not yet been invented. Cheers!

1665-1704:  Isaac Newton makes his own lenses for telescopes.  Soon he would discover that white light isn’t white but a mixture of different colors of light, and also discovering chromatic aberration and the color theory of light.  In trying to fix chromatic aberration he invents the first reflecting telescope which partly failed at his original intent, but still with its greater power and more compact size managed to change astronomy, physics, and optics forever. Newton believed Chromatic Aberration was impossible to fix.

1665:  Mr. Hook of England invents a turning lathe to improve the accuracy and speed of grinding lenses.

1666:   Earliest known Optical patent is issued to Francis Smethwick in England for some kind of non-spherical lenses (what today we’d call aspheric).  It’s not known if these were aspheric in the modern concept or something else.

1667:  Although Roman Emperor Nero was reputed to use green emeralds to improve his vision in the bright sun of the Coliseum, it was a feat not repeated… ever again… maybe because emeralds cost a small fortune and Nero was kind of crazy.  He was not the kind of guy you wanted as a spokesperson for a product endorsement.

Samuel Pepys may be credited with ordering the first sunglasses made by English Optician John Turlington, but interestingly according to his diary, he seemed to enjoy dark green lenses more for ogling women in church than actually using them to shield his eyes from sunlight. *  He was probably the coolest bloke in church on any given Sunday.  He was not a monk.

1674: English businessman George Ravenscroft with his Venetian glassmakers Signor da Costa and Vincenzo Pompeo invents leaded crystal, also called “flint glass” today, by adding lead oxide and using special quartz imported to England from the Po Valley in Italy. Leaded glass was sparkly because of its higher refractive index, but also practical as it had a lower melting point and was less likely to suffer from bubbles.  High index flint glass remains available for spectacle lenses today.

1678: Dutch mathematician, inventor, and scientist Christiaan Huygens introduces the Wave Theory of Light, but did not find any contemporary support.

1680:  German glass-makers would create Bohemian Crystal by using purer raw materials, and low iron potash to further improve glass purity and clarity.

Bohemian Crystal is completely unrelated to living a Bohemian Lifestyle, which is giving oneself over to musical or artistic pursuits.  It’s also unrelated to Bohemian Rhapsody, which everyone knows is a small sweet berry that ripens in summer and is most often made into a jelly or jam.

1693-4:  The Royal Society of England commends John Marshal for the invention of his new lens grinding machine, although the original mechanical details are unclear, his methods would be adopted by opticians all over the world via word of mouth.  With added and continued improvements Marshall’s base techniques carried lens surfacing into the early 20th Century.

1700:  The first known glass factory dedicated to manufacturing primarily optical glass is founded in White Friars, England.

Houston, we have an invention!

1720s: Drum roll please! I…am…pleased…to…announce… after 350 years of spectacle manufacture… (my voice echoes) the invention of “sides” or what we refer to in the US today as temples!

1727:  Edward Scarlett, Optician in Soho in London, invents metal temple sides that extended from the front of the frame to straight back along the sides of the head, to hold eyewear on without using a string or cord.  The first temples were a straight affair, with a large round leather cushion at the end to hold the frames against one’s heads semi-comfortably.  The term temples would be later abandoned in England for arms (and ironically, also legs), but would endure in the United States.  His temples very importantly folded, making his eyewear easier to store.

So it is true what they say at least in England, that eyeglasses do cost an arm and leg. * (joke stolen from Neil Handley).

Mr. Scarlett also deserves recognition for establishing a more uniform measure of lens power and marking this power on the temples.  Although the Dioptric power scale we use today was not invented until 1875, it was uniform in a similar manner.  In advertising, he claimed to offer the most precise power for a patient’s needs.  He had a very successful optical business and made other fine optical instruments.

1729-1733:  About 1665 Isaac Newton first discovered chromatic aberration and after a few attempts considered it impossible to fix.  Up for a challenge, English Barrister and inventor Chester Moore Hall invents the first achromatic lens around 1729 that eliminates this issue. His lens system uses both crown and flint glass, nested together, each with a different refractive index to correct for chromatic aberration.  This was a huge advance for telescopes.

An interesting side story is that Hall wanted to keep his invention a secret, so he contracted with two different Opticians to make the separate lens components.  But both Opticians outsourced the lens work to the same person, George Bass.  Bass had no trouble figuring it out and mentioned this discovery to his friend John Dollond, who stole and patented the technology. Dollond is still today often unfairly credited with this stolen invention. Who said history is boring?

With this story, we are beginning to see two types of Opticians emerge.  Those that focus on the manufacturing of lenses, and often made other optical instruments like telescopes, microscopes, or sextants, what we call Bench Opticians today.  And those who on the customer side focused on frames, and often shared space with or were actually jewelers, who were most often skilled at fine metalwork, what we now call Dispensing Opticians.

1730s:  Wig glasses (see summary below!).

1752:  Double folding temples are invented by English Optician James Ayscough to make eyewear more comfortable.  He is also known for his great microscopes.

1750s:  Martin Margins.  Optician, scientist, and prolific author Benjamin Martin sold eyeglasses with a thick insert that reduced the aperture and field of view, creating a sort of pin-hole effect.  It did offer some primitive protection from the sun, and they were popular. But his lasting contribution is the use of insetting and tilting lenses inward to aid in convergence.

1775:  As the temple turns… “Turn-pin” temples appear in both England and Germany.  These didn’t require a large cushion behind the ear but allowed a thinner metal wire to adjust and better fit the shape of a head.  Folks, temples finally get bent.  Although it’s clear from the early days as members of the Brewer’s Guild, Opticians themselves had been getting occasionally bent for some time.

Summary:  Although England was late to the Optical trade and their optical guild was formed about 100 years after Germany’s, English Opticians would soon become the world leader in innovation.

Additionally, printing and paper costs continue to plummet, newspapers are now available in most big cities and even some small ones, including the distant American colonies.  The more people read, the more they need spectacles.  As demand grows and England enters a Golden Age in science, lens and frame technology is carried along with it.

Although today the 1980s are considered the golden age of crazy fashion trends with the mullet, wall bangs, shoulder pads, leg warmers, MC Hammer harem pants, and neon clothing, the early 1700s rightly take the cake in men’s fashion.  High-heeled shoes made their way from Persia to Europe and then to the American colonies, but were for men only.  Women were forbidden to wear high-heeled shoes in Puritan Massachusetts… under the threat of death!  Let’s just add powdered white wigs into this already crazy mix, toss in white make-up, mascara, and fake beauty marks, making the early 1700s a special time for men.  It seems their motto could have been “putting the man back in manicure”. A large white wig in the 1700s would run the equivalent of $3,000 today, and the term “big-wig” is still thrown around today for someone of importance.

It’s not known how many distinguished Gentlemen on removing their eyewear with large round temple cushions, brought their stylish wigs and a cloud of powder along with them. And now crying experienced the joys of running male mascara down their stark white painted faces.   Wig Glasses with very long narrow straight temples were invented to wear with wigs as a response to this potential tragedy.   Wig-glasses are the first spectacles to follow fashion trends and become more specialized. Strange days indeed.

Eyewear technology is heating up, we have temples folks!  We have seen over the course of only 50 years a lot of innovation in frame technology. As we turn toward the end of the 1700s it’s now time for some innovation in lens technology!


This is part two of a multi-part story of the History of Eyewear. Click here to read part one.

Credit where Credit is Due:

I’d especially like to thank the world’s greatest Ophthalmic Optics Historian, Neil Handley MA, Museum Curator, College of Optometrists, London UK, for allowing the use of his many historical gems. Neil has greatly advanced our historical knowledge of this era, especially regarding England.

Please Check out Neil Handley’s must-have book:  Cult Eyewear

Handley, Neil (2011). Cult Eyewear.  Merrell Publishers

Ayliffe, Will (2011). The Correction of Optical Defects from Spectacle to Laser (PowerPoint Slides in PDF) Presentation in my personal collection.  (Professor Ayliffe Ph.D. teaches at Gresham College, UK.)

The combined contributions of Mr. Handley research used in Professor Ayliff PPT are noted in the text with an “*”

Rosenthal, J. William, et al (1996).  Spectacles and Other Vision Aids: A History and Guide to Collecting.  Norman Publishing.  (Dr. Rosenthal is a noted historian and collector of eyewear)

Bruneni, Joseph L. (1994) An Illustrated History of the American Ophthalmic Industry, Optical Laboratories Association. (Joseph L Bruneni was an Optician, who taught Ophthalmic Optics at the Southern California College of Optometry)

Shreiner, E.E. (1919) Colored Glass, Including a Short History of Glas. McCoy and Stillwell Opticians

Wikipedia, of course. Who knew they would have so many gems?

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