When you think of medgadgets, maybe eyeglasses don’t spring to mind — probably because they’ve been around so long, and are so prevalent. But sometimes you realize the importance of something from its absence, as this report from St. Louis University illustrates.
Eyeglasses have been around so long that the most recent major innovations, sunglasses and bifocals, were centuries ago (we’re not counting the passing fad of “contact lenses”). Many people, including this site, breezily summarize the history of eyeglasses, and attribute the bifocal’s origin to Ben Franklin:
Glass lenses, for use as magnifiers or for starting fires, date to about 300 BC, but the first eyeglasses to aid or correct vision were almost certainly invented in 1280 in Florence, Italy by the Dominican friar Alessandro della Spina and / or his friend, the physicist Salvino degli Armati. Prescribed for far-sightedness, the glasses had convex lenses and were worn by Armati, who had injured his eyes while performing light refraction experiments and discovered that it was possible to enlarge the appearance of objects by looking through two pieces of convex glass.
It was in the early fourteenth century that concave lenses were used to correct near-sightedness. In fact, Pope Leo X was depicted wearing glasses, with concave lenses, in a 1517 painting by Raphael. Whereas early eyeglasses were made of polished quartz, by the sixteenth century developments in glassmaking made it possible to mass produce them from glass.
Bifocals, the combination of both concave and convex lenses for both types of vision correction, a top lens for distant viewing and a lower lens for reading, were developed around 1760 by the American statesman and inventor Benjamin Franklin.
Medgadget has profiled a number of celebrity inventors of late, so we naturally gravitated toward Franklin. At first glance, his letters (excerpted here) seem to bear out his role in this invention:
While working as US ambassador to France in 1779, Franklin had ordered a pair of spectacles from the English optician, Sykes, who had a business on the Place du Palais-Royale. The fact that Sykes wrote to Franklin explaining that his spectacles had been delayed due to the lenses having broken three times during cutting has been taken as evidence that the ambassador was ordering something out of the ordinary. The price of 18F, which he paid for the spectacles, was certainly higher than was usual at the time.
In a letter of August 1784, written to his friend George Whatley, Franklin declared himself ‘happy in the invention of double spectacles, which serving for distant objects as well as near ones, make my eyes as useful to me as ever they were’.
But we were dismayed to learn Franklin’s legend may not be all it’s cracked up to be:
The Dollonds were, it seems, producing spectacles of this, or a similar, type, as a bespoke service, but were not convinced that the idea had commercial potential.
Bifocal spectacles were described in Franklin’s in a further letter to Whatley, dated 23 May 1785. In this he again referred to ‘my double spectacles’ and provided a sketch. The letter continued: ‘The same convexity of glass, through which a man sees clearest and best at the distance proper for reading, is not the best for greater distances. I therefore had formerly two pair 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 half of each kind associated in the same circle. By this means, as I wear my 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.’
Some historians, however, have suggested that in this letter to Whatley, Franklin refers to an experiment carried out more than 20 years earlier in London. A letter from the newspaper editor, John Fenno, to his wife dated 8 March 1789, supports this theory. In it Fenno describes a meeting with Franklin in which the elderly statesman had mentioned wearing the spectacles over many years: ‘He informed me that he had worn spectacles for 50 years; Split bifocal spectacles c.1780s-1790seach eye appeared to be formed of two pieces of glass divided horizontally – he informed me that he had always worn such’.
The Fenno letter also fits in with the fact that Franklin suffered from hyperopia, requiring spectacles for this condition as early as the 1730s. This would have made him likely to have benefited from bifocals by the time he arrived in London in 1757.
Before leaving the US, Franklin clearly had an interest in optical developments. He imported vision aids and advertised ‘spectacles of several sorts’ in the Pennsylvania Gazette. This may well have led him to experiment with bifocals at an earlier date.
Yet the only portrait of Franklin in which he is depicted wearing bifocals is one by Charles Willson Peale, dated 1785, and public awareness of the invention only came about in the early 1790s, following Franklin’s death.
Oh well, at least Franklin has some other accomplishments to fall back on. It’s too bad that being the first to popularize a medical device isn’t the same as inventing it — if we could find a way to do that, we’d be very healthy, wealthy, and wise.
That’s all for this week. Take care, enjoy the weekend, and tune in for more on Monday!