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The history of eyeglasses, part 2

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In part one we looked at the history of eyeglasses from the beginning, which was a flattened, slitted walrus ivory tusk that Inuits used to block sunlight, through single-vision glasses that were a rudimentary style of corrective lenses for farsighted and nearsighted vision.

The next big innovation in eyeglasses came with the invention of the bifocal. Although most sources routinely credit the invention of bifocals to Benjamin Franklin, in the mid-1780s, an article on the website of the College of Optometrists interrogates this claim by examining all the evidence available. It tentatively concludes that it is more likely that bifocals were invented in England in the 1760s, and that Franklin saw them there and ordered a pair for himself.

The attribution of the invention of bifocals to Franklin most likely stems from his correspondence with a friend, George Whatley. In one letter, Franklin describes himself as “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.”

However, Franklin never says he invented them. Whatley, perhaps inspired by his knowledge and appreciation of Franklin as a prolific inventor, in his reply ascribes the invention of bifocals to his friend. Others picked up and ran with this to the point that it’s now commonly accepted that Franklin invented bifocals. If anybody else was the actual inventor, this fact is lost to the ages.

The next important date in the history of eyeglasses is 1825, when English astronomer George Airy created concave cylindrical lenses that corrected his nearsighted astigmatism. Trifocals quickly followed, in 1827. Other developments that occurred in the late 18th or early 19th centuries were the monocle, which was immortalized by the character Eustace Tilley, who is to The New Yorker what Alfred E. Neuman is to Mad Magazine, and the lorgnette, eyeglasses on a stick that will turn anyone wearing them into an instant dowager.

Pince-nez glasses, you’ll recall, were introduced in the mid-14th century in those early versions perched on monks’ noses. They made a comeback 500 years later, popularized by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, whose “rough and ready” machismo negated the image of glasses as strictly for sissies.

By the early 20th century, though, pince-nez glasses were replaced in popularity by glasses worn by, wait for it, movie stars, of course. Silent film star Harold Lloyd, whom you’ve seen hanging from a skyscraper while holding the hands of a big clock, wore full-rim, round tortoiseshell glasses that became all the rage, in part because they restored temple arms to the frame.

Fused bifocals, improving on the Franklin-style design by fusing the distance- and near-vision lenses together, were introduced in 1908. Sunglasses became popular in the 1930s, in part because the filter to polarize sunlight was invented in 1929, enabling sunglasses to absorb ultraviolet and infrared light. Another reason for the popularity of sunglasses is because glamorous movie stars were photographed wearing them.

The need to adapt sunglasses for the needs of World War II pilots led to the popular aviator style of sunglasses. Advances in plastics enabled frames to be made in various colors, and the new style of glasses for women, called cat-eye because of the pointy top edges of the frame, turned eyeglasses into a feminine fashion statement.

Conversely, men’s eyeglasses styles in the 1940s and ’50s tended to be more austere gold round wire frames, but with exceptions, such as Buddy Holly’s wayfarer style, and James Dean’s tortoiseshells.

Along with the fashion statement eyeglasses were becoming, advancement in lens technology brought progressive lenses (no-line multifocal glasses) to the public in 1959. Almost all eyeglass lenses are now made of plastic, which is lighter than glasses and breaks cleanly rather than shattering in shards.

Plastic photochromic lenses, which turn dark in the bright sunlight and become clear again out of the sun, first became available in the late 1960s. At that time they were called “photo gray”, because this was the only color they came in. Plastic lenses were available in glass only, but in the 1990s they became available in plastic, and in the 21st century they are now available in a variety of colors.

Eyeglasses styles come and go, and as is frequent in fashion, everything old eventually becomes new again. A case in point: Gold-rimmed and rimless glasses used to be popular. Now not so much. Over-sized, bulky wire-framed glasses were favored in the 1970s. Now not so much. Now, retro glasses that for the past 40 years were unpopular, such as wayfarer, horn-rim and brow-line glasses, rule the optical rack.

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