What Did People Do Before the Invention of Eyeglasses?

You remem­ber it — one of the most heart­break­ing scenes on TV. A man longs for noth­ing more than time to read, to be free of all those peo­ple Sartre told us make our hells. Final­ly grant­ed his wish by the H‑Bomb, he then acci­den­tal­ly break his glass­es, ren­der­ing him­self unable make out a word. Oh, cru­el irony! Not an optometrist or opti­cian in sight! Sure­ly, there are “Time Enough at Last” jokes at eye care con­ven­tions world­wide.

Moral­i­ty tales wrapped in sci­ence fic­tion might make us think about all sorts of things, but one of the most obvi­ous ques­tions when we wit­ness the fate of Mr. Hen­ry Bemis, “char­ter mem­ber in the fra­ter­ni­ty of dream­ers,” might be, but what did peo­ple do before cor­rec­tive lens­es? Were mil­lions forced to accept his fate, liv­ing out their lives with far­sight­ed­ness, near­sight­ed­ness, and oth­er defects that impede vision? How did ear­ly humans sur­vive in times much less hos­pitable to dis­abil­i­ties? At least there were oth­ers to read and describe things for them.…

In truth, the Twi­light Zone is not far off the mark. Or at least near­sight­ed­ness and read­ing are close­ly linked. “As long as pri­mates have been around, there’s prob­a­bly been myopia,” says pro­fes­sor of oph­thal­mol­o­gy Ivan Schwab. But Schwab argues in his book Evo­lu­tion’s Wit­ness: How Eyes Evolved that the rise of read­ing like­ly caused sky­rock­et­ing rates of myopia over the past three hun­dred years. “Though genes and nutri­tion may play a role in near­sight­ed­ness,” Natal­ie Jacewicz writes at NPR, “[Schwab] says edu­ca­tion and myopia seem to be linked, sug­gest­ing that when peo­ple do a lot of close work, their eyes grow longer.”

As the His­to­ry Dose video above explains, the old­est image of a pair of glass­es dates from a 1351 paint­ing of Car­di­nal Hugh of Saint-Cher. The paint­ing is an anachro­nism — spec­ta­cles, the nar­ra­tor tells us, were invent­ed 23 years ear­li­er in Pisa, after the car­di­nal’s death. They “grad­u­al­ly spread across Europe and trav­elled the Silk Road to Chi­na.” (The old­est sur­viv­ing pair of glass­es dates from around 1475). So what hap­pened before 1286? As you’ll learn, glass­es were not the only way to enlarge small items. In fact, humans have been using some form of mag­ni­fy­ing lens to read small print (or man­u­script or cuneiform or what-have-you) for thou­sands of years. Those lens­es, how­ev­er, cor­rect­ed pres­by­opia, or far-sight­ed­ness.

Those with myopia were most­ly out of luck until the inven­tion of sophis­ti­cat­ed lens-grind­ing tech­niques and improved vision tests. But for most of human his­to­ry, unless you were a sailor or a sol­dier, you “like­ly spent your day as an arti­san, smith, or farm work­er,” occu­pa­tions where dis­tance vision did­n’t mat­ter as much. In fact, arti­sans like medieval scribes and illu­mi­na­tors, says Neil Han­d­ley — muse­um cura­tor of the Col­lege of Optometrists, Lon­don — were “actu­al­ly encour­aged to remain in their myopic con­di­tion, because it was actu­al­ly ide­al for them doing this job.”

It was­n’t until well after the time of Guten­berg that wear­ing lens­es on one’s face became a thing — and hard­ly a pop­u­lar thing at first. Ear­ly glass­es were held up to the eyes, not worn. They were heavy, thick, and frag­ile. In the 15th cen­tu­ry, “because… they were unusu­al and rare,” says Han­d­ley, “they were seen as hav­ing mag­i­cal pow­ers” and their wear­ers viewed as “in league with the dev­il, immoral.” That stig­ma went away, even if glass­es picked up oth­er asso­ci­a­tions that some­times made their users the sub­ject of taunts. But by the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, glass­es were com­mon around the world.

Giv­en that we all spend most of our time inter­act­ing with small text and images on hand­held screens, it seems maybe they haven’t spread wide­ly enough. “More than a bil­lion, and maybe as many as 2.5 bil­lion, peo­ple in the world need but don’t have glass­es to cor­rect for var­i­ous vision impair­ments,” notes Live­science, cit­ing fig­ures from The New York Times. For many peo­ple, espe­cial­ly in the devel­op­ing world, the ques­tion of how to get by in the world with­out eye­glass­es is still a very press­ing, present-day issue.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The World’s Old­est Sur­viv­ing Pair of Glass­es (Cir­ca 1475)

James Joyce, With His Eye­sight Fail­ing, Draws a Sketch of Leopold Bloom (1926)

Oliv­er Sacks Explains the Biol­o­gy of Hal­lu­ci­na­tions: “We See with the Eyes, But with the Brain as Well”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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