Ed Scarlett: Inventor

The introduction of the eyeglass is commonly associated with the Venetians, who created convex magnifying lenses in their famed Murano glassworks in the late 13th century. The process of making the crystal-clear glass was a closely guarded secret and, for a time, anyone trying to leave the Murano islands to share the formula would be sentenced to death... which proved to be an effective deterrent.

The Doge visits the Murano glassworks

Originally used as "reading stones" that would be placed directly onto manuscripts to enhance their legibility, the visual aid evolved into a smaller lens that could be framed in wood, leather or horn, and held in front of the eye as either a single lens, or paired in a frame with a "rivet" hinge that could be carefully perched on the nose. The earliest depiction in art of these reading glasses was painted by Tommaso da Modena in 1352, in a fresco at the Basilica of San Niccolõ in Treviso.

The first depiction of the magnifying glass and rivet-frame (1352)

Eventually, the Italians lost their monopoly on the production of optical lenses, and the industry spread throughout Europe. In the early 1700s, English optician Edward Scarlett opened 'The Old Spectacle Shop' on Dean Street in the Soho district of London. He advertised his service to, "Grindeth all manner of optik glasses", offering a wide range of instruments from microscopes and telescopes, to thermometers and barometers, but his area of specialisation was the production of reading glasses.

18th century optician's workshop (London: 1772)

In 1727, Edward Scarlett (abbreviated to Ed.Scarlett in his newspaper advertisements at the time) made a breakthrough that was to forever change the world of optics. Whilst his contemporaries had attempted to stabilise the balance of spectacle frames on the nose by adding devices such as hooks and chains that could be secured to hats and wigs, Scarlett realised that most of his customers had a couple of natural supports that sat either side of their heads - their ears! Almost three hundred years later, his genius idea to add hinged temples to spectacle frames continues to be incorporated in the design of almost every pair of glasses produced in the world. It is perhaps regrettable that he didn't register a patent... but the story remains the stuff of legend.

Scarlett's original design (top) and modern frame (below)

Scarlett was rewarded for his skills and ingenuity by being appointed optician to King George II, shortly after his accession to the throne in 1727. It is extraordinary to think how little the spectacle frame has changed over three centuries, but also reassuring to know that classic design passes the test of time.