Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive

In 21st century America, about 117 million people require some sort of vision correction. That number amounts to more than 61 percent of the population. But vision correction, whether in the form of eyeglasses, contact lenses, or Lasik surgery, is not only a modern problem. People throughout history have experimented with various forms of vision correction technology.

While the first lenses to help correct vision problems popped up in history around 1000 AD, in the form of glass reading stones, the first eyeglasses with two lenses were invented in Pisa, Italy, sometime in the late 1200s. The use of eyeglasses became more widespread following the invention of the printing press in 1452 when reading material began to be produced in mass quantities.


But eyeglasses, as we know them today, began to really take shape in the 1700s. The 18th century saw the first instance of eyeglasses with frames, as well as the invention of bifocals. The functional features of eyeglasses also became an important point during this time. 


Vision Innovation in the 1700s


Eyeglass lenses of the 18th century were large and round in shape. Early designs had hinged joints between the lenses, designed to keep eyeglasses in place on the bridge of one’s nose. Sides, or frames that hooked behind the ears, were first added to eyeglasses prior to 1730, but the exact date is unknown. Early frames were typically made from iron, and the invention of steel also impacted frame manufacturing, as the material is lightweight yet strong, thus well suited for use in eyewear.


Lenses themselves also began to evolve in the 1700s. Different focal lengths were used to accommodate different levels of vision correction. When one visited a shop that carried eyewear, he or she tried on numerous pairs with different lenses to find the pair that best corrected their vision problems. And all eyeglasses in the 1700s were made by hand.


While Benjamin Franklin is widely credited with the invention of bifocals in the 1760s, similar technology was being used in London around the same time. Known as split lenses, these bifocals allowed an individual to see clearly both at a distance and close up. The first bifocals were mainly used by artists and craftsmen, but their wide-reaching applications were soon realized, and they became more common in subsequent decades.


Risks Associated With Poor Vision


Roadways and infrastructure were notoriously poor in the early 1700s, and those with vision impairments often found difficulty getting around. Smoother, macadamized roads weren’t widely implemented until the latter part of the century, and the layers of large stones and gravel of which earlier roads were constructed made for rough travel. The advent of eyewear helped countless carriage drivers to better navigate those roads, reducing the chances of accident or injury.


Those with poor vision remain a travel risk into modern times, especially among elderly drivers. In fact, recent data indicates that there has been an increase in the number of accidents caused by elderly drivers, many of whom suffer from age-related maladies such as failing eyesight and slower reaction times. Despite accident trends related to elderly drivers, a full 78 percent of individuals 55 and older still have their driver’s license. Elderly drivers, as well as younger individuals with impaired vision, may help reduce the number of roadway accidents by having their vision checked regularly.


Vision impairment may also be associated with various negative health outcomes and poor quality of life, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Further, an impaired vision has a high economic cost: The direct and indirect costs of vision impairment reached $139 billion in 2013.


Modern Advancements in Eyecare

The eyeglass innovations of the 18th century paved the way for more advanced corrective lenses. Some, like sunglasses, have roots in the 1700s. Venetians began tinting eyeglass lenses green sometime in the 1700s to help protect their eyes from the sunlight glinting off of waterways.


Those early sunglasses did nothing to protect one’s eyes from damaging UV rays, however. UV rays can damage the lens, cornea, and retina, leading to deteriorating eye health and further impaired vision. Short-term exposure to UV rays can cause photokeratitis, a painful eye condition, and UV exposure of any duration increases one’s chance of developing cataracts. Fortunately, modern eyeglasses can be treated with a protective UV-blocking coating, and UV protected contact lenses are also on the market.


Contact lenses were invented in 1887 and initially made of glass, but they were painful and difficult to insert into the eye. The first plastic contact lens was released in 1938, and today, contacts are worn by about 45 million people in the U.S., reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Eyeglasses remain the most popular form of correction among the visually impaired.


Final Thoughts


Eyeglasses, and bifocals, in particular, are one of the great healthcare advancements of the 18th century. Corrected vision helped improve quality of life among those who previously had to struggle with daily tasks, and may have impacted road safety as well. Eighteenth-century opticians were constantly working to make eyewear that was comfortable as well as functional, and their innovative thinking helped fuel further advancements in corrective lenses.


About the Author:

Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. 
Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.