09 May 2010

LIFE: I Can See Clearly Now

SARONNO, Italy - I friend of mine broke his glasses the other day. He had them in his pocket and sat on them. It's not the first time it's happened and it really put him in a bind. The problem is he’s nearsighted. To see anything he has to practically be on top of it which can be a problem when you have to get right in someone's face to know if you should say hello or not. He said women are particularly sensitive to this type of greeting.

Call the Fire Department
If I remember right, I think my seventh grade science teacher said that Benjamin Franklin invented eyeglasses, but she was wrong. Unfortunately nobody really knows the name of the guy who did. Some experts claim that eyeglasses were invented during the late 1200’s in Pisa by either Alessandro della Spina or Salvino Armato. It’s not clear. Others claim that Armato had absolutely nothing to do with inventing eyeglasses, it was him purely a public relations stunt his family initiated to give the guy some credibility.

In 1289, an Italian writer, Sandro di Popozo, published a Treatise on the Conduct of the Family. In it he states that eyeglasses "have recently been invented for the benefit of poor aged people whose sight has become weak.” Then he went on to say that he had the good fortune to be an early eyeglass wearer. "I am so debilitated by age that without them I would no longer be able to read or write."

Unfortunately Popozo never mentions the inventor by name. A second reference was made by an Italian friar, Giordano di Rivalto. In a sermon he preached in Florence one February morning in 1306 he said: "It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making eye-glasses, one of the best arts and most necessary that the world has." Maybe he sat on his glasses too.

The Friar went on to say that he had met the man who first invented and created glasses, and that he had talked to him. So how come he didn’t give us his name either? It all sounds very fishy to me. It's obvious whoever did invent “disks for the eyes” didn't realize the potential moneymaker they had on their hands. In the right place, and with the right advertising copy, it could have been a bigger marketing opportunity than the hula-hoop. But no. Glasses had the misfortune to be invented in Italy where the general thinking is if you have to advertise your product, it obviously isn't any good.

Early spectacles

By the mid-fourteenth century, Italians were calling eye disks "lentils" and for more than two hundred years eyeglasses were know as "glass lentils." It's also where the word lens comes from. One of the early problems with eyeglasses was how to keep them on. Holding two glass lentils up to your eyes would be fine if you didn't need your hands for other things like opening a door, for example. The first solution was a leather strap that tied behind the head. Variations on that theme were small circles of cord that fitted over each ear. Still others just let the spectacles slide down their nose until it came to rest against the bulbous end. My neighbor’s husband still wears his just that way. Of course he has to tilt his head way back to see anything, but life is made up of sacrifices - large and small, isn’t it?

Ancient spectacles

In the early years eyeglasses were a major status symbol, something like the two big T's of today, telefoninos and tattoos. But by the nineteenth century, when glasses became relatively inexpensive and common, wearing them became decidedly unfashionable. Women didn't want to be caught dead in them. Remember "men don't make passes at girls who wear glasses"? Glasses were only worn in private and only used in public when absolutely necessary.

The same fate should happen to the other two big T's. Unlike earlier versions that were super heavy, today, thanks to space-age materials, eyeglasses are relatively lightweight. In the beginning, frames made of bone, real tortoiseshell or ivory were so heavy that they gave people headaches. Plus the lenses were made of heavy glass, adding to the problem. So for many years people could choose between having a headache and being able to see, or being blind as a bat and no pain.
Leonardo da Vinci

Of course if everyone had listened to Leonardo da Vinci back in the sixteenth century, all these problems would have been resolved. In his Codex on the Eye he described an optical method for correcting poor vision by placing the eye against a short, water-filled tube sealed at the end with a flat lens. The water came in contact with the eyeball and refracted light rays much the way a curved lens does. Da Vinci's use of water as the best surface to touch the eye is copied today in the high water content of soft contact lenses.

Da Vinci, with his 100 percent liquid lens, was right in recognizing the psychological problem people would have with sticking something in their eye. Well none of this has really solved my friend’s problem. He will just have to wait until next week when his new glasses will be ready. Hopefully someone will be able to go with him to pick them up. I wouldn’t want him to get lost and end up wandering around streets of Saronno all alone.


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