Guide To Vision

History of Glasses

The history of glasses (as far as we know it)

Spectacles; so deceptively simple. Yet they've changed the course of humanity since being created 800 years ago. One of the most significant inventions of the past 2000 years, philosophers, monks, mathematicians, physicists, microscopists, astronomers and chemists have all played vital roles in developing this everyday thing. "Spectacles", says psychologist Nicholas Humphrey of the New School for Social Research in New York, "have effectively doubled the active life of everyone who reads or does fine work and prevented the world being ruled by people under 40."

A very long time ago

The first suspected recorded use of a corrective lens may was by the Roman emperor Nero in the first century. He was known to watch gladiatorial games using an emerald.


Most historians believe monks or craftsmen in Italy produced the first form of wearable glasses in around 1285. Made for reading, magnifying lenses were set into bone metal or leather mountings riveted together to form an inverted V-shape that could be balanced on the bridge of the nose.

As soon as early opticians figured out how to make glass without bubbles and other obstructions, they started making lenses out of glass.


The 15th century marked a crucial time in the history of glasses. In 1450, Johann Gutenbergs invention of the printing press fuelled a dramatic rise in the demand for glasses to read all those books with.

Florence became the leading manufacturer of readily available, affordable quality spectacles. Documentation of this early period has revealed the name of 52 spectacle makers there between 1413 and 1562. By the end of the century, spectacle peddlers were a common sight on the streets of Western Europe.


In 1629, Britain's first spectacle makers was formed. Its coat of arms showed three pairs of glasses and the motto: "A blessing to the aged". Tinted lenses first became popular. Round lenses were almost universal until the end of the 18th century, when oval lenses became fashionable.


From the beginning, spectacles failed to remain in position and stay on. This critical problem went unsolved until finally London optician Edward Scarlett in 1730 was credited with perfecting temple spectacles - with short, stiff side pieces that pressed against the temples above the ears.

Medical instruments designer James Ayscough designs spectacles with double-hinged temples. They became extremely popular, and appear more often than any other kind in the art of the period. He also introduced green and blue tinted lenses to reduce glare. Clever chap.

In 1750 Dollond & Aitchison was founded, making them the oldest opticians on the high street.


Prolific inventor and Founding Father of the United States of America, Benjamin Franklin, developed bifocal glasses. Annoyed at having to constantly switch glasses whenever he wanted to read or take in the sights while travelling, Franklin had his reading glasses cut in half and fused with his distance ones.


Sunglasses really took off as Hollywood stars start wearing them to protect their eyes from bright studio lights.


Polaroid filters were invented in 1936, protecting the eyes against UV rays for the first time, and suddenly making glasses a health product.


Contact lenses became widely available.


Enthusiastic demand was born for glasses (advertised in Vogue, Tatler and the like) as a fashion accessory, demanding stylish - many were made with jewel-like detail, comfortable, and functional designs that enhanced our personality.


Glasses really became glamorous. Manufacturers created simpler, sparkling styles for women, and lighter, streamlined ones for men - in keeping with the fashion of the day.


Iconic glasses-wearer John Lennon died. His trademark orange-tinted glasses (said to be worth a £1m) are on permanent display at The Beatles Story Museum in Liverpool.

The Health and Medicines Act 1988 makes it a legal requirement that anyone having an eye test be given a written prescription immediately after the examination.Molded polycarbonate plastics were used to make wraparound frames.


Prescription glasses are sold online for the first time - giving people the chance to bypass traditional high street opticians, buy glasses directly from the manufacturer, and pay far less (that was us, by the way).


Glasses begin to be bought as fashion items, like shoes or suits, with people buying a different pair for each outfit or event (that'll be us again ).