The innate curiosity that humans possess have helped solve problems to a plethora of different issues for thousands of years. While curiosity will never be the sole instigator to some of the most infamous inventors in human history, it definitely played a significant factor in the critical thinking devoted to the mechanical and technological evolution that inventions need to keep a modern-day society functioning. An almost ancient creation that benefits more than half of the human race today is that of eyeglasses, or in Benjamin Franklin’s case, the bifocal lens.
One of the most influential and memorable men of his time, Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1706. In British America, a time before the colonies declared independence, Franklin practiced his hands-on skills as a young printer on the road, eventually ending up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where he grew to exceed expectations in business and become famous for his Poor Richard’s Almanac (Bulliet et al, 2013, p. 578). While Franklin played a critical role in creation of historical institutions, such as the Philadelphia Free Library and the University of Pennsylvania, he also contributed to the scientific field via publication of his 1751 paper, ‘Experiments and Observations on Electricity’ (Bulliet et al, 2013, p. 578). One could speculate Franklin’s background as a young printer helped fuel his curiosity for tinkering with mechanics well into his adult life, as his inventions of the notorious lightning rod and wood-burning stove would easily demonstrate. However, of all his creations, Franklin’s engineering of bifocal glasses stood the test of time as most practical for use in the modern era.
As mentioned, the much-needed upgrade in spectacles during the late 18th century came from Benjamin Franklin’s ingenious invention of dual lenses in a single frame. At this time in human history, it was impossible to correct one’s vision with laser-based surgery, forcing individuals who suffered from near-sightedness (myopia) and far-sightedness (hyperopia) to carry two different pairs of glasses (Petroski, 2013, p. 337). Each of those eyeglasses came with a different type of lens to adapt to one visual impairment over another when deemed necessary. As one can imagine, having to constantly switch between pairs of eyeglasses to function normally in everyday life would prove inconvenient as well as annoying. Franklin addressed and solved this troublesome issue in society by engineering a pair of glasses with dual lenses, split horizontally across the middle of the glass. Henry Petroski, author of ‘Engineering: The Evolution of Eyeglasses’, describes the design of the eyeglasses in context as the upper portion of Franklin’s new lens carried the “least convex for distant objects” to assist with far-sightedness, while the bottom portion held the “most convex for reading” and helped with near-sightedness (Petroski, 2013, p. 337). This design, addressing both visual impairments in a single pair glasses, was truly the beginning of the bifocal lens, all thanks to Benjamin Franklin.
However, not all of the credit for this invention should be given to Franklin. Many speculate that because Benjamin Franklin was the first to create bifocal lenses, it must also mean he created the first “real” pair of glasses, but that simply is not the case. After all, the practice of using a piece of glass to magnify an object has been around since the year 1000 (Petroski, 2013, p. 335). Olden-day scribes, scholars, and those with similar backgrounds would use spherical segments—objects they would call “reading stones”—to aid with long hours of reading and study (Petroski, 2013, p. 335). Petroski continues to explain that these objects would be similar to “what today we might term a frameless magnifying glass or plain glass paperweight” (Petroski, 2013, p. 335).
In addition to the use of these early clarity aids, there are a few more intelligent individuals credited with the evolution of the wearable eyeglasses. Edward Rosen, a classicist turned scientist, graduated from the College of the City of New York in 1926 (Petroski, 2013, p. 334). Earning a position to lecture at the college after his graduation, Rosen continued to further his doctoral education. Urged by his advisor to study the works of Copernicus, Rosen was eventually led to investigate the works and history of lenses and optics, publishing an article in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences rightfully named ‘The Invention of Eyeglasses’ (Petroski, 2013, p. 334). This profound article, according to Rosen, confidently dated the origin of the invention of eyeglasses somewhere in Tuscany, Italy between 1280 and 1285 (Petroski, 2013, p. 335). However, because the patent system would not be developed in Italy until the 15th century, the only way to maintain a monopoly over one’s own invention was to keep it as secret as possible (Petroski, 2013, p. 335). That said, that did not keep others, like St. Catherine monastery’s own friar, Alessandro Spina, from “reverse engineering” early versions of spectacles (Petroski, 2013, p. 335).
Interestingly, regardless of the popularity of the eyeglasses, some at this age in history would still believe that using glasses prevented understanding of the world accurately in a visual sense. As an article entitled ‘Spectacles in the Muslim World: New Evidence from the Mid-Fourteenth Century’ would theorize, humans were once thought to be able to accurately see the world around them due to the human eye emanating rays that would reach out to other objects, thus letting the items in question be visible (Mazor and Hershkovits, 2013, p. 293). With that theory, it was presumed that glasses unnaturally bent these invisible rays coming outward from the eye, due to the lenses in the frames, allowing the mind to translate the bent visual stimulus inaccurately (Mazor and Kershkovits, 2013, p. 293). One could reason why this unnatural alteration was seen as taboo, as the thought behind eyeglasses was believed to damage the function of the human eye on a permanent level rather than give any type of assistance.
However, over time, more research eventually showed evidence to counter that of the prior theoretical fear of glasses. Following the comprehension of the human eye’s true function, which is to receive light that bounces off objects at an infinite number of degrees to create imagery, the fear of the light-bending lenses in glasses slowly disappeared (Mazor and Kershkovits, 2013, p. 294). Along with the safe access to lenses from the medical community, the comfort and acceptance behind the invention itself spread among all corners of the world, creating a new demand for the spectacles that had never been known before.
As previously mentioned, glasses have evolved to carry amazing impacts in today’s modern society thanks to the culmination of many curious minds, including Benjamin Franklin’s. A study on textile factory workers in Durban, South Africa shows that productivity increased following vision correcting lenses given to those in need (Chan et al, 2017, p. 1). Not only did the speed and productivity levels increase for these factory workers, but accumulated stress and anxiety from poor vision had been reduced, especially in the quality assurance officers and office workers (Chan et al, 2017, p. 4). In addition, the ocular support granted by the corrective lenses improved physical posture and reduced constant pain, as the factory employees didn’t have to crank their neck or body in strange ways to get their target into focus (Chan et al, 2017, p. 4).
Similar results of the benefits in introducing glasses have been reported in the educational system as well (Ma et al, 2014, p. 6), but that does not mean that the resources exist for all institutions. An article published in the British Medical Journal within recent years explains that poor vision is the most common impairment affecting school aged children, taking into account about 48% of all children aged 5 to 9 years old within India (Ma et al, 2014, p. 1). In China itself, the article provides similar accounts as “The leading and most easily remedied cause of visual impairment (visual acuit)’. Even though adequate eyeglasses are not common place or cheap everywhere in the world, this does not stop the advancement in care or attention by medical professionals towards this issue. An article from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control & Prevention) is one of many pieces of research that presses awareness of the increasing visual impairment. “Vision loss and blindness are among the top 10 disabilities in the United States, causing substantial social, economic, and psychological effects, including increased morbidity, increased mortality, and decreased quality of life” (Kirtland et al, 2015, p. 513). This article stresses the importance of detecting visual disabilities as early and as quickly as possible, as well as treat these issues with the correct lenses or procedures.
The advancement in medical technology, knowledge, and engineering will continue to alter Franklin’s bifocal creation into gear that suits the human race for years to come. Contact lenses—frame-free alternatives—are one such evolution to the invention, with an estimated 40.9 million U.S. adults using them daily (Cope et al, 2015, p. 866). There has even been a pair of glasses developed that contain lenses filled with a liquid membrane, allowing the user to turn knobs on the sides of the frame to adjust the pressure and its optical power (Petroski, 2013, p. 337). In comparison to that of the relatively recent creation of the trifocal lens, the liquid membrane option would appear to provide the user with a sense of futuristic advancement that is seen in fiction movies.
A fair amount of curiosity follows those who continue to upgrade and improve inventions created so many years ago. In regards to the standard pair of eyeglasses in today’s modern world, the evolution and availability of this visual aid will only continue to advance, pushed forward by demand and necessity. Being able to see someone smile, taking the emotional impact as well as the clarity into account, as well as interpret written word accurately, is a gift those without visual impairments wouldn’t fully understand. It is just one of the many reasons why the invention of eyeglasses has had such a profound effect on modern-day living today. Without curious minds—like Benjamin Franklin’s, who questioned the practicality of creation in human life—future modifications to the eyeglasses will never evolve to become more than just separate models separated by a variation in style and color.