So, we’ve been talking about the printing press, how it changed people’s lives, making books more accessible to everyone. More books meant more reading right? But, as you know not everyone has perfect vision. This increase in literacy in reading led to an increase of demand of eye glasses. And da, well here is something you probably haven’t thought of. This increase demand impacts the societal attitude towards eye glasses. But em, first let me back up a bit and talk about vision correction before the printing press. And, em, what do people with poor vision do? I mean, especially those few people who were actually literate. What do they do before glasses were invented?
Well, em, they had different ways of dealing with not seeing well. If you think about it, poor vision wasn’t their only problem. I mean, eh, think about the condition they live in. Houses are dark, sometimes there weren’t any windows, candles were the only source of light. So in some places, like ancient Greece for example, the wealthest people with poor vision could have someone else reading for them. Em, easy solution if you could afford it.
Another solution was something called a reading stone. Around 1000 CE, European monks would take a piece of clear rock, often quartz, and place it on top of the reading material. The clear rock magnify the letters, making them appear larger. Eh, that was like what happens when a drop of water falls on something. Whatever was below of the drop of water appears larger right? Well, the reading stone works in a similar way. But rocks like quartz, quartz of optical quality weren’t cheap. Late in the 13th century, glass makers in italy came up with a less expensive alternative. They made reading stones out of clear glass, and these clear glass reading stones evolve into the eye glasses we know today.
So we’re pretty sure that the glasses were invented in about the late twelve hundreds, well over a hundred years before the printing press. But it’s not clear who exactly invented them first, or exactly what year, but records show that they were invented in both Europe and China at about the same time. By the way, we call this independent discovery. Independent discovery means when something is invented in different part of the world at the same time. And, it is not as unusual as it sounds. You can look at the timeline chart at the back of your textbook, to see when things were invented in different cultures at about the same time, just see what I am talking about.
So, now lets tie this to what I said before about societal attitude towards glasses. Initially in parts of Europe and in China, glasses were a symbol of wisdom and intelligence. This is evident in the artwork from the period. European paintings often portrayed doctors, or judges wearing glasses. In China, glasses were very expensive, so in addition to intelligence, they also symbolized afluence. Well, in 14 century Chinese portraits the bigger the glasses, the smarter and wealthier the subject was. So glasses were a status symbol in some parts of the world.
Now lets get back to the invention of the printing press in 1440. What happened? Suddenly books became readily available, and more people wanna to read, so the need, well actually not only the need but the demand for more affordable glasses rose drastically. Eventually, inexpensive of glasses were produced, and then glasses were available to everyone. People could purchase them easily from a traveling peddler.