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When Were The First Eyeglasses Invented?

When Were The First Eyeglasses Invented?

If you wear vision glasses chances are you probably wondered how miserable life must have been without eyeglasses. Well, you were right. Vision problems have been around much longer than eyeglasses for sure!

Even when invented, eyeglasses did not become accessible to most until the 19th century. But how long have glasses been around then? Who invented them?

Nero’s Glasses

Nero was known for being nearsighted. He could not even watch the Gladiator games organized in his honor! Pliny the Elder, the Roman historian, in his “Natural History” account narrates how “Nero viewed the combats of the Gladiators through a Smargdus”. In Rome, a Smargdus was any green gem or stone, the Emerald being the most sought. Apparently, Nero’s tutor Seneca was well versed in many things including optics and aided the Emperor with his vision problems. The polished concave cut Emerald surface allowed Nero to watch the games through this original method of image enlargement. It became such a popular item, that many romans started carrying Emeralds around. It was probably just to imitate the Emperor, making Nero one of the first trend-setters (among many other things).

The first reading device

The first record of a reading device describes a lens used by monks to read ancient documents. Monks in Italy found a theoretical document written by Ibn Sahl who based his theories on Ptolemy’s treaty on Optics. The monks were intrigued by the idea and in the 12th century they crafted a semi-spherical lens made of some sort of rock crystal or quartz. The experiment worked. When placing this object on a manuscript, the content was magnified making manuscript transcription much easier.

The First Eyeglasses

Portrait of a Domenica Cardinal by Tommaso da Modena a in 1352

One thing is sure, eyeglasses were invented in Italy. Who invented them is a different story. According to some scholars it was a glass craftsman in the town of Pisa in the 1280s. Gaffers were really good glass craftsman and are often credited with this invention.

Evidence seems to lean toward the invention of eyeglasses in Pisa. The most likely inventors were Alessandro Spina and Salviano Armato, two local glass craftsmen. The Story or Salvino Armato is particularly believable. Salvino was already working with lenses and glass when he damaged his vision around 1280 while performing refraction experiments. His research focused changed in order to try to improve his eyesight. It is believed that he found a solution through the invention of thick curved lenses.

Historical Proof

Oldest surviving pair of eyeglasses. Circa 1475

There are two additional sources to corroborate Salvino’s invention. Sandro di Popozo in 1289 published a “Treatise on the Conduct of the Family” where he writes that eyeglasses were “recently invented for the benefit of poor aged people whose sight has become weak”. He actually admits that without them he could have not written the Treatise. A second reference is found in a sermon preached in Florence on a Wednesday morning in February 1306. During the sermon the italian friar named Giordano di Rivalto mentioned that it was “not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making eyeglasses, one of the best arts and most necessary that the world has.” He also added that he had met the man who first invented them and talked to him.


Few scholars claim that eyeglasses were invented in Venice. Pisa maritime rival city Venice had better glass workers and they were the first to produce white, transparent glass needed for eyeglasses. Venice was the center of all of Europe’s glass production. During the end of the 13th century, Venetian glass makers started being busy with a new venture called “disks for the eyes”. These lenses were convex aiding only people that could not see up close (farsighted), it would take another 200 years before concave lenses to see far (nearsighted lenses) would be invented.

Spreading the Invention

Eyeglasses travelled throughout Europe fast. In 1326 spectacles became available to English nobility, scholars and the clergy. There was no eye exam, so people in need would go to a shop and try all the different lenses until they found one they liked.

Lens and Lentils

Italians started to call the round shaped glass lentils as they resemble the perfect shape of this legume. As a result, in all of Europe, for 200 years glass lenses were called “Glass Lentils”. The word morphed to become the word we use today -Lenses.

The Evolution of Eyeglasses

Leonardo’s Drawings

The first glass frames were made of bone, tortoiseshells, or leather. These glasses were heavy and could not be worn all day. In fact, headache was one of the common side effects of wearing eyeglasses. Leonardo da Vinci, improved these spectacles using metal-frames and even designed the first contact lenses.

The problem on how to keep them on your nose was a real one. Most of the times eyeglasses users would either hold them or use a leather strap around their head. It would not be until the 1727 that eyeglasses would take the shape we know today thanks to a London optician, Edward Scarlett.

Status Symbol

Eyeglasses were very expensive and available only to the Elite. They became a status symbol as they were in the time of Nero! The second son of Lorenzo il Magnifico (Florence’s patron of the arts) Giovanni de’ Medici was severely nearsighted. When in 1513, he became Pope Leo X, he pawned and sold palace furniture and silver just to purchase several pairs of glasses to improve his hunting skills. Few years after he became pope, the world-renown Raphael portrayed Pope Leo X in the first art masterpiece depicting nearsighted Eyeglasses.

Pope Leo X By Raphael

References to Learn More

The history of glasses (zeiss.com)
Glasses – Wikipedia
Evolution Of Sunglasses | Clip On Sun Glasses
The Fascinating History of Eyeglasses | All About Eyes
The History of Glasses – Origins of Eyeglasses (glasseshistory.com)


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