A History of Corrective Lenses


There are some innovations in our contemporary lifestyles that have become so commonplace that we can’t imagine life without them: electricity and plumbing, of course, and a few more everyday implements.  What would you do without, say, your glasses/contacts/laser eye surgery?

If you use glasses or contacts, they’re probably the first things you reach for in the morning. You need them to read, drive, and sometimes just to make out the faces of your peers. But a long, long time ago – before electricity and industrialization and even before widespread indoor plumbing – you could get by for almost your entire life without having 20/20 vision. People tended to stay mostly in their own villages, with people and streets and stores they knew well, and many occupations didn’t require super-sharp peepers. But even though corrective lenses weren’t being used widely just yet, our ancestors did their fair share of experimentation and innovation long before old Ben Franklin came along.

Pliny the Elder

4 BC: Roman philosophers Seneca the Younger and Pliny the Elder actually wrote “magnifying glasses” and “burning glasses.” Long before we started writing history books in tiny, eye-straining type, someone had discovered that a convex glass – a piece of glass thicker in the middle than on its circumference – magnified the appearance of flat objects (like written letters and small organisms) when placed over them. Someone also discovered that a convex lens would focus the sun’s rays and cause it to burn a hole in cloth or paper (our bet is on a perpetually curious kid).

13th century AD: European inventors come upon the Latin translation of Muslim scientist and mathematician Alhazen’s writings on the convex lens. Previously neglected, research on convex and corrective lenses gains increasingly more traction throughout Europe.

1286: According to a sermon given by Dominican friar Giordano da Pisa in 1306, this is the year that eyeglasses were invented in Europe. (Some bespectacled critics think the first spectacles more likely appeared in India.) Less than 20 years later, the city of Venice had introduced guild regulations regarding the sale of eyeglasses.

1500s – 1800s – In this (admittedly significant) time period, people begin to see eyeglasses as both accessory and necessity. In the meantime, silver and gold are gaining popularity among the middle class. Formerly only sold at hardware stores, glasses can increasingly be found jewelry stores.

1825: Recognized astronomer Sir George Biddell Airy designs the first lenses that effectively correct astigmatism.

Early 1900s:  Due to rationing and shortages during WWI, the U.S. stops importing glasses from Europe. Local companies Bausch & Lomb (modern-day Ray-Ban) and American Optical rise to the occasion and become the most prominent manufacturers in the nation.

Sam Foster

1919: Sam Foster founds the Foster Grant company. In 1929, they sell the first pair of Foster Grant’s sunglasses at Woolworth’s on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. Almost immediately afterwards, sunglasses start to become popular across the country.

1940: After a few decades of experimentation with acrylic and plastic lenses, manufacturers made a breakthrough with Columbia Resin #39 (CR-39). This innovation was incredibly influential in how we make glasses today.

1959: Drawing on centuries of speculation about how to create an internal corrective lens, Czech chemists Otto Wichterle and Drahoslav Lim develop the first hydrogel (soft) contact lenses.  The FDA approves their design in 1971, and the following decades introduce increasingly effective and comfortable silicone hydrogel lenses.

1989 – Prominent American ophthalmologist and retinal surgeon Gholam A. Peyman, MD is granted the first patent for LASIK – a surgical procedure designed to correct people’s vision without the use of corrective lenses. Dr. Peyman continued to tweak his procedure to make it safer and more effective for a wide range of patients.