A history of eyewear part 1: Vikings, Italians and whale baleen (ewww!)

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We all know who created the iPhone, iPod, iBook, (iEverything)…but who invented the eye-glasses? The answer, jokes aside, lies somewhere between dome-helmeted Vikings and whale-toting Italians.

But it’s difficult to pinpoint who invented glasses, because eyewear history ain’t just about one single pair of specs (something we at Sneaking Duck think too – frames for every occasion here, here!) So, strap on your best history-channel-watching specs and wrap up in your snuggie, and like ol’ mate Edison, be prepared for some light-bulb moments!

The Bulbous Breakdown

Glasses have two parts: lenses and frames. We love the frames aspect here at Sneaking Duck (we’ll focus more on fashion in Part two of this blog!). The lens aspect is kind of important too – you know, the part that lets you see.

Magnification via lenses is grounded in mathematics; physics to be precise. So for your inner geek, the origins of your pair of spectacles is a research project within itself!

Optics is super interesting and not just when part of an interactive art installation. Optoms and lens experts study the principles of bending light, so they can understand your prescription and what this means for your vision.

Water Distortion

Ever noticed how rain water drops make the veiny surface of a leaf appear bigger? Early optical observations in 1st century AD noted that letters were enlarged when viewed through a water glass. It’s all about bending light: when light rays hit the slightly rounded surface of the water they change direction, creating a focal point shorter (or longer, depending on whether the surface is rounded in or rounded out) than usual.

Vikings. Just Vikings

Like most epic things, the Vikings were all over optics. Excavations of the Viking town of Fröjel in Sweden discovered rock crystal lenses which were produced by turning pole lathes in the 11th-12th century. The Viking lenses were of a quality similar to 1950s aspheric lenses – no mean feat – and were capable of concentrating enough sunlight to ignite fires. (Awesome Viking fires, probably.)

Around the same time, convex lenes appeared in Europe and were initially made by cutting a glass sphere in half. This primitive magnifier was used as a ‘reading stone’ (that phrase is surely due for a comeback!) The Chinese made sunglasses out of smoky quartz in the 12th century while the Inuit were using snow goggles for eye protection (polar-bear protection not included!)

But it wasn’t until 13th century that the Italians (industrial Milan, perhaps?!) started wearing flatter, convex lenses in glasses frames on their face. The frames were sometimes creepily made from whale baleen, but that’s a story for Part two of this blog! The glass disc with a ground surface on each side was later used in telescopes and microscopes in the late 1500s and early 1600s.

From then on, lenses have stayed remarkably similar, except with more advanced technology to make lenses thinner, lighter, and easier to see out of (with cool features like our multi-coat). Stay tuned for fun facts about the frames that go around them!

Thanks to Otea for the Flickr image!

Like this? Continue reading a history of eyewear part 2: birth control and monocle-rocking…