History of Bifocals

THE UNKNOWN HISTORY OF BIFOCALS

In examining the origins of bifocal lenses, the historical record reveals an evolution marked by waves of early innovators, conflicting claims over inventorship, and gradual technical refinements that allowed the technology's transformation from a specialized curiosity to an optical mainstay.

While commonly associated with Benjamin Franklin today, the development of multifocal spectacles stretches back decades before Franklin's tinkering, albeit with his fervent popularization being key to their broad acceptance later on.

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN IS GENERALLY CREDITED WITH INVENTING BIFOCALS

Benjamin Franklin and his bifocal invention
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Benjamin Franklin's invention of bifocals in the 18th century served as a practical solution to a common problem that afflicts individuals as they age—declining vision.

As a diplomat representing the American colonies in France, Franklin struggled to clearly see the faces and lips of his French hosts during conversations.

This was likely due to presbyopia, a condition where the lenses in the eyes lose elasticity over time, making it difficult to focus on nearby objects.

Rather than continue to strain to understand speech, Franklin innovated a simple but elegant solution—he sawed his existing spectacles in half and combined the two lenses into one frame.

The lower half had the more powerful convex lens for close-up vision, while the upper retained the weaker lens for distance.

With this primitive version of what we now recognize as bifocals, Franklin was able both observe the delicate movements of lips required for speech reading, and also clearly distinguish facial features from a comfortable distance.

This custom adjustment gave him functional vision at the two focal lengths he needed.

Upon returning to America, Franklin introduced his novel lens design publicly.

Though initially met with skepticism, the utility of Franklin's invention soon became widely recognized. As bifocals improved over time, he is rightly honored among opticians for pioneering vision correction for the aging population.

JOHN ISAAC HAWKINS COINED THE TERM "BIFOCALS" IN 1824

portrait of John Isaac Hawkins
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The origins of the quintessential term "bifocals'' can be traced back to the English inventor John Isaac Hawkins.

In 1824, over 50 years after Benjamin Franklin's initial invention of multifocal spectacles, Hawkins decided a formal name was needed to distinguish these unique double-vision lenses.

While previously long-winded descriptive phrases like "double spectacles" had been used, Hawkins astutely recognized that a catchy, memorable word would allow the invention to become better known to the wider public.

Consulting his roots in Latin, he coined the neologism "bifocals" by combining the prefix "bi-" indicating two, and focals, relating to focal points or focuses.

This etymological creation gave a proper identity to the useful imaging technology Franklin had developed decades prior.

In a nod of acknowledgement to the famous Founding Father, Hawkins also credited Franklin with the original idea when publicly announcing his new terminology.

Over subsequent years, Hawkins' label spread rapidly in its ease of use, eventually overtaking other phrases to become the common household name for dual-vision eyewear.

BIFOCALS WERE ORIGINALLY DESIGNED WITH THE MOST CONVEX (MAGNIFYING) LENSES ON THE BOTTOM & LEAST CONVEX ON TOP

a bifocal lens
© History Oasis

The initial design of bifocals in Franklin’s era strategically placed the most optically powerful lenses on the lower half of the frame.

These segments had greater curve convexity and thickness, providing magnifying qualities to sharply view close-up objects. Meanwhile, the upper halves contained flatter, thinner lenses with less magnification strength in order to clearly see distance.

This orientation took advantage of natural head movement and gaze. Most reading or detail work is done in a downward gaze, benefiting from stronger lens prescriptions below.

Distance viewing and navigation conversely uses an upward sightline, aided by weaker prescription above. Thus early bifocals cleverly matched differing lens powers to correspond with these habitual gaze patterns.

However, some wearers struggled with adapters to this divided field of view.

Early lens designs had a visible straight cut dividing the two half-moon segments. The sharpened lower crescents became known as “reading stones” for their ability to amplify text. But alternating between them and the weaker upper environment view frustrated some users.

Later spinning and grinding techniques allowed for seamless, invisible transitions between prescriptions across the lens surface.

Smoother progressions between focal ranges assisted functionality. But the basic premise of “reading magnification” below and “distance clarity” above as set by Franklin’s original bifocals persists in optometry conventions today.

METHODS WERE DEVELOPED IN THE LATE 19TH CENTURY TO FUSE THE TWO HALF LENSES TOGETHER INTO ONE FRAME

bifocals
© History Oasis

The segmented spectacle lenses of the early bifocals were an ingenious yet imperfect solution.

The stark visible divider between the upper and lower halves proved disorienting for some wearers as they shifted focus. But late 19th century innovators would refine Franklin’s concept through an inspired mechanical advancement.

Around 1875, an Italian lens grinder named Giuseppe Ratti pioneered fusion by heating and molding glass to transition gradually between prescriptions.

This spawned the “cemented bifocal” joining magnifying and distance vision in one piece.

Others like Theodore Scheimpflug perfected seamless bending utilizing a knee-shaped filament. American optician John L. Borsch further developed fused heating and pressing techniques, securing a 1908 patent.

These enterprising artisans ushered in ergonomic, integrated bifocals. Their heating and molding trade skills merged the disparate upper and lower semi-circles into one symmetrical lens.

Soft gradation replaced the former blunt bisection through the middle axis. Users could now tilt their heads or eyes smoothly across gradients of magnification, diminishing vertigo and disorientation.

So enduring praise is owed to the glassmaking craftsmen and opticians who converted Franklin’s functional though crude split lenses into more refined, holistic single panel bifocals.

Their warmth and dexterity quite literally fused invention into a gradual, flowing visual aid allowing clearer transitions between focal planes.

SOME EVIDENCE SUGGESTS OTHERS INVENTED BIFOCALS BEFORE FRANKLIN

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The legacy of bifocals is sometimes attributed in name to Benjamin Franklin for bringing dual-vision spectacles into recognized utility.

However, the precise origins of combining multiple prescriptions in one visual aide remain shrouded in uncertainty, despite Franklin’s fame associating him with their invention.

Noted scholar and lecturer Charles Letocha conducted extensive archival research on potential predecessors or contemporaries also innovating bifocal-like optical corrections independently during the 18th century.

A peculiar passage referencing ordering “split spectacles” in 1752 from a London tradesman hints at their existence before Franklin famously enhanced his own reading glasses in the 1760s.

Records surrounding British scientific societies further reveal educated gentlemen informally discussing wearing such compound lenses up to 50 years prior.

While the evidence remains circumstantial, the College of Optometrists ultimately concluded in their historical investigation that Franklin could be one of the first widely known public figures to adopt bifocals, but definitive proof as inventor is speculative.

Their statement allows him to capitalize on existing workshops experimenting with bifocal concepts to advance both the technology itself and its public awareness simultaneously.

Nevertheless, whether by his direct invention or popularization, Benjamin Franklin undeniably gave a tremendous thrust to bifocals’ acceptance for correcting age-related vision deficiencies.

So perhaps the Founding Father is better denoted as the patron saint of bifocals rather than necessarily their progenitor.

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