The Invention of Spectacles between the East and the West

by Lutfallah Gari Published on: 12th November 2008

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The following article by the expert scholar Lutfallah Gari surveys the historical sources to uncover the ancient history of the invention of spectacles. To the question "where and when were they invented?", and after a close investigation in the some original sources and a survey of secondary literature, the author shows the evidence in favor of the determining role played by Arabs and Muslims in the early history of this tremendous tool.


Lutfallah Gari*

There is no doubt that the invention of spectacles is one of the important inventions in the history of humanity. So where and when were they invented? Were spectacles known first to the West as the Western references claim? Or the Arabs and Muslims were more advanced than the West in this field as they were in many other technological fields? Early history of this tool in the Western literature was loaded with myths and explorers’ stories or even some intentionally faked stories that came from ethnocentrism. Here, we review what was mentioned in the Western and Arabic sources. Hence we conclude some outcomes based on the available information.

History of Lenses

It is well known to archaeologists and museologists that glass rocks were used by early humans. It is also proved that manufactured glass was used in old eras, as it was well known to the ancient Egyptians, the Phoenicians and others. There are many tools and utensils that are made of glass which belong to the oldest known eras, exhibited in museums.

Lenses were known to several civilizations including Roman, Greek, Hellenistic and Islamic civilizations. However, according to the available evidence, these lenses were not used for magnification but for causing flames by concentrating the sunrays in the focus of the lense. Hence they were called under the generic name of “burning mirrors”. We have some literature in this field that was authored by scholars belonging to Antiquity and to the Islamic civilization.

There are many old lenses in some museums that date to a thousand years BCE for some of them. However, Nimrod’s lens, which was discovered in Nineveh in Iraq in 1850, is considered to be the most famous one. This lens consists of a crystal that dates back to the 7th century BCE. The lens is half an inch in diameter and nine tenths of an inch in thickness. One of its sides has an even surface while the other is convex. Its focus is 4½ inches away from its even side. The lens is kept in the British Museum in London. Some historians suggested that this lens represented a model of telescopes that were used in the civilizations of Mesopotamia. Their evidence was the accuracy of the astronomical observations recorded in Mesopotamian records. However, most investigators in this field agreed that this lens could not be used for magnification but most probably it was just used for decoration.

Figure 1: Photograph of Nimrod’s lens which was found in Nimrod’s palace in the 19th century.

Pliny, the known historian, wrote in his literature that the Roman Emperors used to watch brutal wrestling competitions, which usually end with the killing of slaves and captures, through a board of transparent emerald. Some researchers suggested that Nimrod used this for magnification. However, there was some evidence that excluded such a suggestion. Contemporaries of Nero and even after his era didn’t use lenses for magnification. In addition, Pliny didn’t mention that the transparent emerald was used for magnification and perhaps it was used to minimise sunrays or any other reasons. At this time, the Romans used to consider weakness of vision as a congenital defect with no cure for it. Hence, it used to influence the price of the slaves in slave markets. The Romans used to test the strength of the slaves’ vision by asking them to read some written materials. Chinese explorers’ literature suggested that the Chinese knew the spectacles for long time, although this was not documented in the literature. The Chinese used to buy spectacles from the ruler of Malacca. Some European historians suggest that spectacles arrived to China as a result of the commerce between China and Europe.

Spectacles in Europe

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Figure 2: The oldest wall painting that shows a man wearing spectacles. Tomaso de Modena painted this painting in 1352 in the Italian city of Treviso.

In the 13th century, the English scholar Roger Bacon (1214-1294) wrote about the magnifiers and explained for the first time how to magnify visual objects using pieces of glass spheres. He wrote: “for this reason, this tool is useful for elderly people and people who have weakness in their vision as it allows them to be able to see any letter however small it was, if it was magnified enough.” Some science historians suggested that Bacon extracted many of his knowledge from the Latin version of Ibn Al-Haytham’s book Kitab al-manazir (Optics), in addition to other extra information that was added by the translators. The idea of magnifying things by glass spheres was known since Ibn Al-Haytham’s research experiments that will be mentioned in the next section. However, according to the available evidence, using these magnifiers for reading was first mentioned in Bacon’s book.

Julius Hirschberg, the historian of ophthalmology, mentioned that books were transported in boxes shielded with colorless beryllium stones. It was also mentioned that these stones magnified the writings which led to the discovery of the magnifiers and hence the spectacles in 1300. However, this contradicts what Hirschberg himself said about Ibn al-Haytham as an investigator of the magnifications properties in the 11th century.

The spectacles were first mentioned in the medical books in Europe in the beginning of the 14th century. For example, Bernard Gordon, the professor of medicine in University of Montpellier in the south of France, talked in 1305 about an eye drops as an alternative to spectacles for elderly people. In 1353, Guy de Chauliac mentioned other types of eye drops for the same purpose but he concluded that it is better to use spectacles if the eye drops didn’t work.

Figure 3: A model of the first spectacles in the 14th century, this model is similar to what is sold by the antiques replica dealers.

There is no evidence found by historians that show the name of the person who invented the spectacles but all what we have is the near date of its invention. There are three different tales that were mentioned by the Italian scholar Redi (died in 1697). The first tale suggests that Redi owned a manuscript that was known to be dated in 1299. It was mentioned in its introduction that the author was an elderly man and couldn’t read without the spectacles, which was invented in his era. The second tale, which was also narrated by Redi, shows that spectacles were mentioned in a speech pronounced in 1305 where the speaker stated that this tool was invented no earlier than 20 years before the speech date. The third tale suggests that the monk Alexander from Spina (in eastern Italy) learned how to make spectacles and he used to teach that to others. He died in 1313.

Figure 4: This picture shows a part of a painting that was painted in 1352. It is called Hugh of St. Cher.

Figure 5: Detail of a painting called “the Death of the Virgin” which was painted between 1400 and 1410.

Other books adopted the tales that were mentioned by Redi after his death. But some science historians suggested that Redi faked these stories and hence they are not reliable. Julius Hirschberg’s book, which mentioned Redi’s stories, was written between 1899 and 1918 in German and many of its information is old and needs updating. However, it was translated (without being revised) into English and published in 1985. As a result of that, Redi’s stories were spread in English while the research articles that reject the reliability of these stories were written in Italian and weren’t as spread as Hirschberg’s book. There are other stories that were already rejected by Julius Hirschberg. For example, some authors claim that Marco Polo’s journey account mentioned that the Chinese used spectacles for a long time. However, Marco Polo didn’t mention that in his journey account and his information about China is not very reliable to historians.

Some other stories were also faked by journalists in the middle of the 19th century which claim that Roger Bacon is the inventor of spectacles as he gave a pair to his friend as a gift when he traveled to Italy. It is also claimed that he taught the Monk Alexander how to make these spectacles which were then spread.

There is another faked story which claims that one author saw a monument on a grave in a church that was demolished later, and it was written on the monument: “here rests Florence, the inventor of spectacles, God forgive his sins, 1317”.

Science historians concluded that the inventor of spectacles remains unknown. Perhaps it wasn’t a single inventor who discovered this tool but with many experiments using the magnifier, spectacles evolved to their current shape.

Spectacles were introduced in Europe at the end of the 13th century and the paintings started to show them in the middle of the 14th century. There are two paintings in this articles that show people wearing spectacles and both were painted in 1352 (fig. 4-5). One of these painting is a wall painting while the other is oil painted. As these spectacles were expensive, they were found listed in the inheritance records.

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Figure 6: The first printed drawing that shows medical spectacles. This was in a book called Liber Chronicarum by Schedel. This book was printed in Germany in 1493 and it is known that printing was invented in Germany forty years before the previous date.

Some European poets such as the Italian Luigi Pulci (1432-1484), an early Renaissance poet associated with the Medici family, and Domenico di Giovanni, called ‘il Burchiello’ (1404-1448), mentioned spectacles in their poetry. Spectacles were also mentioned in the comedy plays in Italy. However, the mentioning of spectacles in poetry and plays included just the spectacles used by elderly people but not the ones used to treat shortsightedness. The later was first used in the 16th century as it was seen in a painting that was painted by Raphael between 1517 and 1519. The painting shows Pope Leo X wearing one of these glasses. Although some books mentioned these spectacles later after Raphael’s painting, the detailed scientific descriptions of them were first found in a work of optics published in 1604 by the great German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler (died in 1630).

Ophthalmologists rejected the benefits of spectacles at first as eye drops were used instead centuries after the invention of spectacles until the middle of the 19th century (160 years ago).

Magnification in Ibn al-Haytham

So far in the pervious paragraphs, only European references were used. It was mentioned before that Roger Bacon was influenced by the famous scientist Ibn al-Haytham who studied the refraction of light when it passes a colorless surface such as glass, air or water. Ibn al-Haytham said: “the shapes of visual objects appear distorted when seen through a colorless object”. He explains: “this is due to the shape of the surface of the colorless objects.” He also mentioned that he knew this fact but he thought more research in the subject was not necessary, as he didn’t find any application in everyday life.

He also said: “Visual objects are seen by us as a result of light refraction by thick material such as water and glass bigger than their real size”. Therefore, Ibn al-Haytham recognized the properties of the magnification of pictures through colorless surfaces. However, he didn’t know any important application of this phenomenon. Ibn al-Haytham’s studies were leading ones in the field of lenses and were at least three centuries older than Eropean studies of this field.

The poem of Ibn al-Hamdīs

‘Abd al-Jabbār Ibn Abī Bakr Ibn Muhammad Ibn Hamdīs of Sicily was a poet who was born in 1055. He moved from Sicily to Andalusia in 1079 and lived in Seville and was close to its King al-Mu’tamid Ibn ‘Abbād. In 1092, he moved to Tunisia and lived there until he died in 1132. In Tunisia, he was close to three of its kings. He wrote a poem that describes the spectacles. This poem was written two hundred years before the claimed date of the invention of spectacles. We present herafter this important piece of evidence in its original Arabic text and in English translation:

يغـوص فـيـه على درّ النـهى النـظر وجـدول جـامـد فـي الكـف تحـملـه
كأنـه ينـبـوع نـور منـه ينـفـجـــر يكـسـو السـطور ضـياء عـند ظلمتها
شـف الهـواء، ولكـن جـسمه حجـر يشـف للعـين عـن خط الكتـاب كـما
فـيـه وقـرّ عـليـها جـامـدا نـهـر يـنـدي الخـدود بجـرح نـالها عـرق
أما يـُحـَدّ بكحـل الجـوهـر البصـر؟ كحّـلت عـيـني إذ كـلـّت بجـوهـره
من المعـمـّى عـويصـا فـكّـه عـسر كـأنـه ذهــن ذي حـذق يـفـك بـه
وصـغّـر الخـطّ في ألحـاظـه الكبـر نعـم المـعـيـن لشـيخ كـلّ نـاظـــره
كعنصـل المـاء فـيـه يعـظـم الوبـر يرى به صـور الأسـطار قـد عـظمت
  • A solid stream held on the palm / inside it the vision dives via mind’s pearls
  • It dresses the lines with light when they are dark / as if it is a spring from which light gushes out
  • It transparently shows the writings on the book to the eye; transparent like air, but its material is rock
  • It leaves a wet trace on cheeks; the trace is like a river drawn by its solidness and sweating
  • When my eyes had fatigue, I applied its jewels as eyeliners on them. Isn’t the vision made sharper with jewels eyeliners?
  • It is like a mind of a smart human, who is deciphering an obscure cryptograph that is difficult to decipher
  • A good aid to an elderly whose vision got weak, and the old age made the writing small on his eyes
  • Using it he sees the lines got large, as the water enlarges the fluff of squill
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Figure 7: Front cover of Diwan ibn Hamdis (Beirut, 1970).

The poetry collection’s editor suggested that what was described by Ibn Hamdis is the pen. However, this was a clear mistake. In the third verse, the poetry says: “it is transparent for the eyes and shows the writings of the book, but its body is made of rocks”. This description matches the description of lenses rather than pens, as pens were made of plants or feathers at that time. In the following two verses, the poet mentions that this tool is “the best aid for an elderly man who has a weakness in his vision”, and ” using this tool, he will see the line magnified”. Thus, this description matches the spectacles not pens. The fourth verse proves that the poet was describing the spectacles not the magnifiers as he said: “it leaves a mark in the cheek, like a river”, which was the case with the old-fashioned spectacles.

Figure 8: A painting showing the Persian artist Ridhā al-‘Abbasī in his old age. His student Mu’in al-Musawwer painted the paining in March 1635. The painting shows the artist wearing his spectacles and it is the oldest known painting in the Muslim world that shows spectacles. It is kept in Princeton University Library in New Jersey.

The spread of spectacles amongst the Muslims

Spectacles spread amongst the Muslims after the 13th century. It started to be mentioned in the literature, poems, paintings and history books. In one of the poems of Ahmad al-Attar al-Masri a section may suggest that he was mentioning the spectacles when he says: “the old age came to me after youth, I had a strong vision and now my eyes are made of glasses”:

رمى بعــد اعتدالي باعـوجاج أتى بعد الصبا شيبي ودهري
وقد صارت عـيوني من زجاج كفى أن كان لي بصر حـديد

In another occasion, the historian al-Sakhāwī said about the calligrapher Sharaf Ibn Amīr al-Mārdīnī (died in 1447): “he died with an age that exceeded 100 years; he had good senses and he continued writing even without using a mirror.” A mirror here apparently means lenses.

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Figure 9: This painting is one of Ridhā al-‘Abbasī’s abum, it shows a man wearing spectacles and holding a book. This painting is dated to 1650 and it is now kept in Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.


The early history of the invention of spectacles is troubled with the scarcity of evidence and confused with fake stories, as mentioned previously in this article. On the other hand, we note that the scientist Ibn al-Haytham, who studied light refraction in colourless materials, did not find an application of his studies; but his studies were used later for the invention of lenses.

But spectacles were mentioned in the Arabic poetry, by Ibn Hamdīs, two centuries before the claimed date of their invention (i.e. in Europe at the beginning of the 14th century).

In his monumental history of ophthalmology, Julius Hirschberg mentioned that Muslim ophthalmologist did not mention spectacles in their early books. However, European ophthalmologists themselves ignored spectacles as a tool for vision corrections. Therefore, the fact that spectacles were not mentioned in the Muslim ophthalmologists’ books is not a strong evidence that they were not known in the Muslim world.

Finally, it should be noted that there is a clear reason that explains the existence of many paintings that show spectacles in European art but not in the early Islamic art as Muslims were forbidden to draw people or animals.


  • Al-Farisi, Kamal al-Din, Tanqih al-manazir, Hyderabad: Osmania Oriental Publications Bureau, 1928, pp. 112-250.
  • Al-Sakhāwī, Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Rahmān, Al-Daw’ al-l-lāmi’ li-‘ahl al-qarn al-tāsi’, Cairo: Al-Qudsi library, 1934-1936, p. 299.
  • Atil, Esin, The Brush of the Masters: Drawings from Iran and India, Washington: Freer Gallery of Art, 1978, pp. 36-37, 83.
  • Awad, Michael, “Al-‘Arab ‘awwal man ‘arafū al-nazzārāt”, Hunā Baghdād: 149, 1956, p. 15.
  • Belloni, Luigi, “Redi”, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, New York: Scribners Publishers, 1981, vol. 11, pp. 341-343.
  • Canby, Sheila R., Persian Masters, five Centuries of Painting, Bombay: Marg Publications, 1990, pp. 120-125.
  • Drewry, Richard D., “What Man Devised that He Might See“, the Internet Site of the University of Tennessee, Department of Ophthalmology, 2002.
  • Hirschberg, Julius, The History of Ophthalmology, vol.2, translated from German by F. C. Blodi, partially edited by M. Zafer Wafa’i, Bonn: Wayenborgh Verlag, 1985.
  • Ibn Hamdīs, Dīwān Ibn Hamdīs, edited by Ihsan Abbas, Beirut: Dar Sader, 1961, p. 203.
  • Nazīf, Mustafā, Al-Hasan Ibn al-Haytham, Buhuthuh wa kushufuh al-basariya, Cairo, Cairo University, 1943, pp. 810-811.

*Engineer and researcher in the history of Islamic science and technology, Yanbu al-Sinaiyah, Yanbu’, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

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