Top ten innovations in eyewear (a brief history).

Wires Glasses
6 min readNov 5, 2018

Every day, several billions of us put on glasses — to read, to drive to work, to protect our eyes from the sun. The ubiquity of glasses in our everyday lives means we rarely pause to think how, or where they are made. When was the first pair of glasses invented? How have they changed over time?

From the invention of the first glasses 750 years ago, to the latest innovations in sustainable eyewear emerging today, Wires Glasses trace the evolution of eyewear through the centuries.

The first glasses

The first pair of glasses were invented in Northern Italy sometime in the late 13th century. Fairly rudimentary things, they consisted of two magnifying glasses set into bone, metal or leather, and connected with a hinge on the nose. The first pictorial evidence of these early glasses exists in the paintings of 14th century artist Tommaso de Modena, featuring monks wearing pince-nez style glasses or monocles in order to read and copy religious manuscripts.

German glasses with leather and horn frame c. 158


Yet there was a problem with these early models — they wouldn’t stay on the wearer’s face. With the invention of the printing press in 1439, the demand for spectacles rose dramatically, and manufacturers had to think of creative ways to allow people to work and read without having to constantly replace their glasses on their face. Spanish manufacturers added silk ribbons to the frames, to be looped around the wearer’s ears; German makers added ties of leather and horn. In China, they came up with a different solution, tying little weights to long ribbons to hang down elegantly behind the ears.

The ‘temple’

Finally in 1730 — a staggering 450 years after glasses were first invented — a London optician Edward Scarlett added rigid rods to the frames to rest on the ears. Some 22 years later another Englishman, James Ayscough, added hinges to the rods — and the first prototype of the modern ‘temple’ frame was born.

The ‘temple’ frame, invented in 1730, precursor to the modern glasses we wear today
Benjamin Franklin is often credit with the invention of bifocal glasses


The next big innovation was the invention of bifocals, sometime in the 1760s. Bifocals were created by fusing concave and convex lenses in the same frame, allowing the viewer to see objects close-up as well as in the distance. The invention is often credited to US founding father Benjamin Franklin, although this is disputed by some historians of optometry.


The late 18th century saw the introduction of the monocle, which gained its greatest popularity in mid-19th century Europe as an emblem of aristocratic style. Often used purely for dramatic effect, the monocle was typically worn around the neck on a chain or ribbon, and used to peer down on others with an air of affected superiority. Many early monocles were framed with metal or tortoiseshell, with more elaborate ones set in gold or studded with gems.

Monocles were an emblem of aristocratic style (left); Teddy Roosevelt popularised pince-nez glasses (right)


The late 19th century saw the return of the pince-nez (literally ‘pinching the nose’). Much improved from their 14th century predecessors, the new models incorporated the new and improved innovation of a spring-clip between the lenses so they would stay on the wearer’s face. Immortalised in popular culture by figures such as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, they were also the eyewear of choice of US president Theodore Roosevelt.


In 1929, sunglasses hit America when Sam Foster began selling inexpensive mass-produced frames to beach-goers in Atlantic City, New Jersey. With the invention of injection moulding techniques, Foster Grant was able to manufacture glasses made from celluloid. Adverts featuring Hollywood stars boosted sales, and sunglasses quickly became an essential fashion item.

Ray-Ban ‘Aviators’

A defining moment of innovation in sunglasses came with the invention of the ‘Aviator’. In the 1930s, pilots were flying higher and further than ever before, and requested something lighter than fur-lined goggles to protect their eyes from the sun’s glare. US manufacturers developed lightweight glasses with teardrop lenses — to reflect the shape of human eye sockets — and the ‘Ray-Ban’ was born. Fusing functionality with style, their iconic design remains virtually unchanged to this day, and has been worn by everyone from Marlon Brando to Michael Jackson to Tom Cruise along the way.

Marlon Brando wearing Aviators in ‘The Wild One’, 1939

An explosion…of plastic

Advances in plastic production from the 1940s up to the present day have given rise to the mass production of huge numbers of styles, colours and frames — and the 20th century saw a rapid and ever-evolving succession of fashions in eyewear. From the ‘cat-eye’ and Wayfarer specs of the 1940s and 50s, to the round-rimmed specs of the 70s to the oversized frames of the 80s and 90s, ease and facility of production have made glasses an integral element of one’s personal expression of style. Advances in lens technology have also brought photochromic lenses and progressive lenses, and almost all lenses are now made out of plastic.


Unsurprisingly, the fusion of eyewear with fashion has generated big business — yet huge amounts of waste. Frames for glasses are typically made from heavily laminated acetates or other plastics derived from non-renewable oil. Most often, they are cut from larger sheets of plastic, with the ‘negative space’ ending up as non-recyclable waste material. The short shelf life of glasses, along with the huge amounts of unused stock, mean that thousands more go to landfill. Combined with a fast fashion and disposability culture that encourages us to update our styles with the season, the now-gigantic eyewear industry now contributes to the millions of tons of plastic waste that end up in the ground, or in our oceans.

Increasingly, forward-thinking designers and manufacturers are thinking of how to combat this tendency using innovations that combine sustainability with function and style.

Wires Glasses is one of the companies leading the movement in sustainable eyewear. Each pair consists of a single stainless steel wire and 3D printed rims, a process which generates hardly any waste — using only what is necessary, nothing more. Its modular design means that wearers can update their look without buying a whole new pair of glasses; Wires are designed to be kept for life.

The history of eyewear is still in motion — but we have a responsibility to our shared planet.

Glasses help us to see the world; let’s innovate to create the kind of world we want to see.



Wires Glasses

Wires Glasses is an independent eyewear brand which looks to change how eyewear is made and worn.