Looking Back Through Rose-Tinted Glasses
The history of glasses stretches into antiquity, and encompasses a wide spectrum of evidence – from legend, to scholastic disputes, to travellers’ tales, to fabrication. Yet there is no consensus as to whom the world should attribute as the inventor of this profoundly important device.
The earliest historical reference to magnification dates back to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs in the 5th century BC, which depict “simple glass meniscal lenses”. The earliest written record of magnification dates back to the 1st century AD, when Seneca the Younger, a tutor of Emperor Nero of Rome, wrote: “Letters, however small and indistinct, are seen enlarged and more clearly through a globe or glass filled with water”. Nero (reigned 54–68 AD) is also said to have watched the gladiatorial games using an emerald as a corrective lens.
The use of a convex lens to form a magnified image is discussed in Alhazen’s Book of Optics (1021). Its translation into Latin from Arabic in the 12th century was instrumental to the invention of eyeglasses in 13th century Italy.
Englishman Robert Grosseteste’s treatise De iride (“On the Rainbow”), written between 1220 and 1235, mentions using optics to “read the smallest letters at incredible distances”. A few years later, Roger Bacon is also known to have written on the magnifying properties of lenses in 1262.