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Spectacles: Seeing Made Easy

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the February 1981, A.S. XV issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

Man, mortal creature that he is, is given to many imperfections. One of these afflictions is imperfect sight, but god in his wisdom gave man a rational mind, by which he may overcome these deficiencies. In this case, man invented spectacles. The invention of spectacles took a surprisingly long time to come. The ancient Egyptians knew how to make glass and the Greeks had noted the magnifying power of water-filled glass spheres. In the first century AD, Pliny wrote about lens-shaped crystals that could be used to concentrate the sunís rays to burn things. But at the same time Seneca wrote about the magnifying power of glass spheres and erroneously thought that it was due to the water. In the second century, Ptolemy further elucidated the optical properties of these spheres in his book "Optics."

The Arabs then picked up the trail. The principal writer was Ibn al-Haithan (c965-c1039) known to the West as Alhazen. His experimental work included the reflection in curved mirrors and the magnifying properties of glass sphere segments. His work on the rainbow was translated into Latin about 1170, and his "Optics" in 1269.

The next important worker in the field was the great English scholar Robert Grosseteste, bishop of Lincoln (c1175-1253). In attempting to explain the rainbow, he formulated a law of refraction that was to stand until the 16th century. He was the first writer to suggest the idea of both the microscope and the telescope. Grossetesteís work and ideas were extended by his famous and controversial pupil Roger Bacon (c1214-1294). Bacon was the first to attempt making a telescope and in 1266 his "Opus Magus" first proposed the idea of spectacles. Evidence that those first spectacles were actually made in 1286 is provided by the Friar Griodano da Rivalto of Pisa, who in a sermon given in Florence in 1306 said:

It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making eye-glasses which make for good vision, one of the best arts and most necessary that the world has. So short a time is it since there was invented a new art that never existed (before.) I have seen the man who first invented and created it, and I have talked to him.

The name of this man, however, has been lost to history. There does exist a church monument in Florence that credits a noble by the name of Salvino degli Armati (died 1317) with the invention. The tomb of Alessandro della Spina (died 1313) indicates that he was at least a popularizer of spectacles.

Venice, the glassmaking center of Europe, soon attracted the new industry. In 1300 the Venetian glassmakerís guild by-laws mention roidi da ogli (little disks for the eyes). In 1301 there was an entry for vitreas ab oculis ad legendum (eyeglasses for reading). In 1316, eyeglasses with a case cost six Bolognese soldi. Other references include a Florentine bishop bequeathing in 1322 "one pair of spectacles framed in sliver-gilt." IN 1363 Guy de Chauliac prescribed spectacles as a remedy for poor sight if slaves and lotions fail. Petrarch (1304-1374) writes:

For a long time I had very keen sight which, contrary to my hopes, left me when I was over sixty years of age, so that to my annoyance I had to seek the help of spectacles.

The first portrait with spectacles was painted in 1352 by Tommaso Barisino da Madena of a Dominican monk, presumed to be Hugh of St. Cher. The fresco shows that the lenses were held in circular frames, which had a projection tab that allowed them to joined together to from a bridge by which they rested on the nose. The joint was formed by either a screw or a rivet, which allowed the lenses to be folded over each other when not in use, and carried in a small case. These early frames were made out of wood, horn, steel, silver or gold and often ornamented.

It is obvious that such jointed spectacles would not easily stay perched on the nose and many arrangements of straps and bands were used to hold them in place. In the 16th century, they were even attached to hats. Eventually a more conventional bridge was made of metal or leather replacing the joint and was soon followed by a short sprint bridge, and thus entered the pince-nez.

It should be noted that it was not until the 15th century that concave lenses were produced for shortsightedness.

The impact of the invention of spectacles cannot be underestimated. With the coming of printing, spectacles allowed many to discover the ideas that flowed from the presses. Around 1600 it was spectacle maker who made the first telescope, the instrument that Galileo use to launch the scientific revolution.



Crombie, A. C. Augustine to Galileo. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961.

Grigson, Geoffrey, and Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith. Things. New York: Hawthorn Books Inc., 1956.

Singer, Charles, A. R. Hall Holmyard, and Trevor I. Williams, ed. A History of Technology. London: Oxford University Press, 1957.


Copyright © 1981 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.


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