The First Optician

by Specs4ever

I was renovating an old home on the coast of New England when I found a very old wooden trunk. It was sealed shut, and when I managed to pry it open, all that was inside was some old musty clothing, a leather bound book that was falling apart, and a few pages of handwritten paper that was threatening to crumble into dust. I was able to separate the pages, and although the writing was really faint, I managed to read enough to capture my interest.

After taking a great deal of time and trouble, I finally finished translating this story from the original old English, and I am sick of seeing the words verily, wherefore, whomsoever, art, thoust, and so many other words that are no longer in day to day usage. But, I think I have managed to do my best. The story was of great interest to me, and I hope that you will enjoy it as well. But first, a little bit of history.

Widespread use of lenses did not occur until the invention of spectacles, probably in Italy in the 1280’s. Nicholas of Cusa is believed to be the first to discover the benefits of concave lenses for the treatment of myopia in 1451. Then during the mid 15th century in Florence, Italy, lens making was a thriving business. Hinged temple spectacles were invented in Britain in 1730, by an optician named Edward Scarlet. So, you will see from references that the timelines in this story were fairly accurate.

The Story, as translated from the original:

I had finished my apprenticeship to a jewelry maker, and it was time for me to find a wife, and settle down somewhere. Unfortunately I had no money with which to pay for a wife. If I had sufficient means I would have been able to pick a wife, but not only did I not have any money, I was among the poorest of the poor. In these times even a man who had a small amount of money could still find a young lady to marry him without paying her parents. But I was in the third category. I had to find myself a young lady whose parents were willing to pay a dowry for me to marry her. And usually this meant that the lady in question was either ugly as sin, or extremely fat, or had a miserable disposition or something else wrong with her that kept other richer men away.

I was sick of London, and I wanted to travel away from there. Finally I came to an area along the south coast. I had heard of a family who had 3 daughters of marrying age that were all quite attractive. What interested me was that it was rumored that the oldest daughter had an affliction of her eyesight, and she was unable to see very well. So, the rumor was that the parents were willing to pay a dowry to any man who was willing to marry her. I was interested.

I found the family, and the gossip was correct. The 3 girls were all very nice looking. The only way one could tell that there was anything wrong with the oldest daughter was by the way she drew everything extremely close to her eyes to see it. She would read a book practically with the end of her nose touching the pages. When she was knitting she looked to be normally sighted, until she had to check her stitches, and she would bring her work right up to her eyes. Her father was offering a decent sum of money, as well as a little cottage for us to live in. So, I decided that even if Marsha was extremely short of sight I would rather have a pleasant attractive wife who was almost blind, rather than one of extremely homely appearance.

Marsha’s father, John the smith, was a pleasant gentleman. Her uncle Harry was a carpenter, and together the 3 of us rebuilt the thatched roof, dirt floored cottage that Marsha and I were going to live in. Soon we had a very pleasant weather tight home.

Marsha was for all intents and purposes blind. During our first year of marriage I felt that her already poor eyesight had worsened. Now to see any writing on something she had to close one eye, and bring the page up to within 40 mm from her eye. During daylight hours she could go about without bumping into things, but in the evening her sight worsened, and she could see virtually nothing. I asked her once what she could see in the daylight, and from what I could understand from her description all she saw was blur of different intensity.

With a wife who was unable to see, it was easy for us to spend a lot of time in bed. And the more time we spent in bed, the more time we spent making love. Marsha was very fond of this activity, as it was something she could do with her eyes closed. Of course, this did eventually lead to Marsha becoming pregnant. Since Marsha’s vision was so poor, her mother helped Marsha a lot with our daughter Victoria. Then when Benjamin was born, her mother was again a wonderful asset to have nearby.

I had been doing reasonably well as a jeweler and a watchmaker. We were no longer poor. One day a peddler came through who had just arrived from a ship from St Malo. This peddler told me that in Florence Italy he had watched lens makers making lenses for spectacles that could be worn by ladies who were short of sight. I was skeptical, but my wife and her mother thought that it would be wonderful if there were some sort of contraption that could help my wife regain some useful vision. Her already poor eyesight seemed to have deteriorated even further since the birth of Victoria and Benjamin.

So, with the blessing of my wife, and my father and mother in law I closed the doors of my business, and booked passage to Florence Italy by the first available vessel. I discovered that I was a lousy sailor, as I was seasick the entire trip. But, finally 4 months after leaving Southampton I arrived in Florence.

It didn’t take long before I found the lens makers in question. It was an intriguing process. These gentlemen had created moulds from steel. They could make concave or convex lenses ranging in power from # 1 to # 10 simply by pouring molten silicon dioxide, created from crushing pure quartz into a fine powder, and mixing it with boric oxide, soda ash, lime, magnesium oxide and aluminum oxide, into a steel mould. These latter additives were required to lower the melting point to around 1000 degrees Celsius, as the steel moulds were formed at a temperature of about 1700 degrees Celsius. These concave lens powers were the most common powers of lenses required to assist people who were short of sight, but for people who required magnification for reading, the most common lens powers were # 1 through # 4. Then after rapidly cooling the glass they would polish the back of the glass, and polish the front convex or concave surface of the glass using special tools. Once the imperfections were polished from the glass they had a lens suitable for use in a pair of spectacles.

When I discussed my wife’s affliction with the lens makers I met they were all astonished that my wife had such a short focal length. From what I described to them, they figured that my wife’s focal length was about 20 mm, which to them indicated a glass in the range of # 50 would be required. The lens moulds they had developed were only suitable for focal lengths ranging from 1000mm, which was a # 1 and was a very popular lens, up to 100mm, which was a # 10. However, they were in the process of making moulds that would go from # 10 all the way up to # 30, because they had found that there were a few people who required much stronger powers than # 10. These higher power moulds were being made in such a way that they could screw a # 10 together with a # 5, and create a # 15. Then when you got to a # 20 the only way they could find to go higher was to create a mould that had a steep dimple in the center of the mould, and that created a flat surface that had no power around the outer edges of the dimple.

The gentleman who was making the moulds for the lens makers was a very patient man. Soon he managed to make a complete set of lens moulds that could be used to make a lens all the way up to # 30, which had a focal length of 33mm. The other lens makers and I discussed my wife’s probable requirement, and he then created a mould that could be screwed together to have a front surface that was a power of # 20, and a rear surface of # 30. This same mould maker also made the wonderful tools that were used to polish out any imperfections in the lenses.

We screwed the 2 moulds together, and I watched as the head lens maker filled the inner core of the mould with molten glass. He cooled it, and we unscrewed the mold. It hadn’t completely filled in the center, which was extremely thin, so we were forced to do it again. After the second try, which led us to the idea of heating the mould to a temperature slightly below the temperature of 1000 degrees that the molten glass had to be we had a perfect lens, which I spent hours polishing. Then we made 3 other lenses, which I also spent hours polishing. Finally I had 4 perfect lenses to use for a pair of glasses for my wife.

Before I left Florence with my 4 lenses I ordered, and paid for a complete set of moulds, and polishing blocks so that I could create my own convex and concave lenses. It was going to take about a year before these moulds would be shipped, so I purchased a small supply of lenses ranging in power from # 1 to # 10 in concave, and a much larger supply of convex lenses ranging in power from # 1 to # 4. I arranged passage back to England, and again I was seasick the entire voyage. But finally I was back in my home, with my wife and children.

When I showed my wife one of the lenses that I thought that she required, she held one of them up to each of her eyes. She was amazed and thrilled that she could see through the lenses, and she wanted me to immediately go to work to make her a pair of glasses. So, the following day I toiled all day, and finally I had a suitable frame fashioned from jeweler’s gold. I mounted the lenses in the frame, and took the glasses home to my wife. When she put them on she was absolutely thrilled. She spent the rest of the day looking at things that had previously only been a complete blur to her.

Soon I had a number of people coming to me for spectacles. I even ran out of my # 10 lenses before my moulds arrived from Florence. Once they did arrive I was kept busy making new lenses, and frames. By far the largest part of my business was in the creation of lenses that magnified rather than minified, however I was more satisfied when I helped someone who was very short of sight.

The best feeling however came the day I helped my own daughter. Victoria was now 14, and for the past while she had been complaining that she could no longer see much of anything in the distance. So, using my trial set of lenses I tested Victoria’s eyesight, and I determined that she required a # 4 lens to allow her to see most everything. However, when I tried a # 5 lens in front of her eyes, Victoria decided that she could see much better with a # 5 lens, so I made her a pair of spectacles.

By the time Victoria was 19 she was wearing glasses with # 10 lenses, and was quite helpless without them. Of course, her mother had eyesight that was so much worse that a # 10 lens seemed extremely weak to Marsha, but I knew from all the people that I had provided spectacles for that a # 10 lens was a pretty strong lens.

I was pleasantly surprised when a pleasant young gentleman by the name of Edward Scarlet came calling on Victoria, and when he offered to pay a dowry for her hand in marriage I realized that being short of sight was no longer an affliction that would require the parents of a child with shortness of sight to pay a suitor to take her hand in marriage. Still, I was fortunate to have found my Marsha, as I was still thrilled to look lovingly into her eyes, minified behind the # 50 lenses that she wore in order to see anything.

Translated from the original to the best of my ability by Specs4ever.

Dec. 2006