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What did people do before the invention of glasses?

By Gregory Miller
26 September 2017
Written by: Gregory Miller

Have you ever wondered why there are so many individuals who wear glasses? Nearsightedness, better known as myopia, has been an issue that humanity has faced for many years. Scientists have predicted that more than 4.7 billion people, which is about half of the world’s population, will be nearsighted by 2050. Thankfully, we can get prescription glasses to help with this condition, but have you ever wondered how our ancestors faired without glasses before they were invented?

Cavemen and Myopia

Dr. Ivan Schwab, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of California stated, “As long as primates have been around, there’s probably been myopia.” This means there's a possibility that humans have struggled with eyesight since the advent of our existence and Schwab believes that cases of myopia have grown tremendously over the past three centuries. The rise in vision problems can be related to humanities infatuation with reading text. Schwab also believes that generations of individuals reading tiny print has allowed our eyesight to last longer which is fantastic for seeing things up close and personal, but not so useful for long range vision. Schwab claims that some ophthalmologists share the belief that reading with poor lighting has helped to aggravate the issue. As scientists scramble to figure out what has caused this massive outbreak of short-sightedness, they agree that our ancestors had much better eyesight during their time.

The ancient world was a dangerous place where those who suffered from vision issues likely had a lower life expectancy due to vicious predators. A myopic individual would not have been able to identify a threat until it was close enough to visually see. Unfortunately, if the approaching danger was a saber tooth tiger, it would have been far too late to react. However, this changed when people began to live together in groups. This allowed for nearsighted individuals to fulfill roles best suited for their abilities. Instead of being sent out as hunters and gathers, myopic individuals were likely given tasks such as making clothing, telling stories, performing as musicians, and acting as oral historians. If these individuals stayed within a group, their chances of survival were greatly increased.

Cavemen and Myopia

Image Source: Pexels

Ancient Greece, Egypt, and Rome

In Greece, Egypt and Rome, reading wasn’t always a common practice. In fact, books were typically made by hand and were reserved for a special few. It was the advent of the printing press that made books more available. Despite this, the common man still showed no interest in reading. Other cultures focused on writing forms that were more pictorial rather than letters in an alphabet. This likely made reading much easier to comprehend. The lack of widespread literacy may have also contributed to the richness of European storytelling and music, as these were common forms of communication.

Since there wasn’t a significant need to read, vision problems were not a priority for the people of the ancient world. One did not need good eyesight to hear a song, plow a field, look at pictures, or practice a trade. It’s very likely that those who were afflicted with poor eyesight believed that they had fallen out of favor with the Gods and simply continued to live their lives as best they could.

Ancient Greece

Image Source: Pixabay

Possible Advantages

It’s speculated that nearsighted artisans might have had an advantage when it came to their craft. Artists and coin engravers didn’t require long-range vision because most of their work took place only a few feet away from their eyes. In fact, myopia might have played a role in helping artists become highly proficient in their field because it was too difficult to perform other jobs that required better vision. They likely spent their time perfecting their craft.

The 13th century

Mankind struggled without any visual aids until the end of the 13th century. It was during this period when the earliest form of the eyeglasses was invented in northern Italy. These glasses were more akin to magnifying glasses as opposed to the spectacles that we're familiar with today. It wasn’t uncommon for merchants to carry spectacles as they journeyed along the Silk Road to Asia. These spectacles were symbols of status. Some Chinese judiciary committees dictated that spectacles were now a part of the court uniform. Though they were quite popular in Asia, spectacles were far more popular in Europe.

The reformation in the 17th century

After the reformation in the 17th century, literacy rates began to skyrocket and spectacles became more common. It was during this time that temple pieces, the long extensions of glasses that fit around the head, allowed for people to wear glasses all throughout the day. From there, styles, colors, and trends began to shape the eyeglass industry into what we see in the modern world today.