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On Vision

Updated on November 23, 2014

When I was seventeen, I had a summer internship at a fashion magazine. It was a big job at a big magazine in New York and on Madison Avenue and it was the big eighties and I was short and lithe and lank-haired but vaguely pretty.

The girls I worked with were all exceptionally pretty. They had long wheat-colored hair and came from good families and wore tweed. What made me exceptional was my brain. I had wanted to be like those other girls: to cut a figure in a fitted hounds-check suit and expensive haircut.

But my looks came from my rather blank freckled face and a pair of Alain Mikli black tortoise frame glasses that I wore constantly, making me look vaguely like Greek singer Nana Mouskouri. Glasses I quickly learned, could make a girl interesting. Boys, we were told, did not fancy girls with glasses, but was it true?

Marilyn Monroe illustrated this dilemma very well in the film “How To Marry A Millionaire” by refusing to wear her glasses for the whole film and consequently, continually bumping into things until in the end, she gets the boy because of her glasses and precisely because the boy likes the way she looks in them. She is Diane Keaton before Diane Keaton – a really, really feminine woman with heavy black glasses that ought not be sexy but are all the same.

Geek chic it seems is having its day. Young girls and boys all now proudly wear thick black-framed glasses to school and it is now a point in their favor. And adults aren’t immune: I see lots of men and women sporting the same look, particularly blond, fair girls with heavy glasses providing real contrast. It is the proverbial smart is sexy thing that has finally come into fashion in a mainstream way. We can thank frontrunners Tina Fey and Sarah Pallin and before them, Woody Allen, John Lennon, and Steve Jobs as great examples of how glasses add intrigue and chic and become such an integral part of a person that we find it hard to imagine them without their glasses. Their glasses become part of their sex appeal.

Think Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffanys” with her green-tinted Wayfarers over which she is constantly peeking. And Bob Dylan with his Ray Ban Wayfarers that have been his big consistent through the years. Even during his Nashville Skyline phase Dylan was true to his glasses – substituting oblong Aviators for Wayfarers.

Glasses Chic

Glasses as fashion isn’t anything new. An early seventeenth century precursor of glasses was the “quizzing glass” - a magnifier attached to the clothes with a chain or ribbon. The quizzing glass, sometimes worn as a necklace, was more fashion than function. It could magnify a thing but was useless in terms of corrective vision. Instead, the real purpose of the quizzing glass was more theatrical effect to demonstrate emphasis. It was held up to the eye by a looped handle to express curiosity, interest, or a quizzical stare.

Originally conceived of and made in Nuremberg, Germany quizzing glasses were a precursor to double-lens glasses. Made between 1600 and 1725, quizzing glasses came in myriad designs. Many of the German quizzing glasses were quite plain: a magnifying lens with a simple bent frame and handle. Others were extremely elaborate and since they were worn as fashion items, the design and intricacy of the glass would depend on the wearer. Some were simple and elegant, others were beaded and very ornate. Some had frames that had a locket-like compartment on the handle in which the wearer could store a lock of hair.

After the monocle and the quizzing glass came scissor glasses which were two circular lenses atop two scissor-like stems.

A woman with a lorgnette
A woman with a lorgnette
Early Inuit glasses/goggles made of bone
Early Inuit glasses/goggles made of bone


Scissors-glasses worked the same way that wearable glasses with ear stems did only the stems in this case were held to the eye by means of a handle. Scissors glasses were used to correct distance vision problems, but this did not mean that they weren’t also fashionable. The stems themselves were often highly ornate and quite elegant, with curving handles that were sometimes on a pivot so that they easily closed into a small case. The cases themselves were made of leather, precious metal, ivory, and mother of pearl.

Like their cousin the quizzing glass, scissors glasses had a loop on one of the stems through which a chain or ribbon could be passed and the item worn about the neck or otherwise pinned to the clothes for ease of use. George Washington, Lafayette and Napoleon used scissors glasses. Napoleon, Benjamin Franklin, and Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s glasses are all now part of a collection that is housed in the village of Givatayim, just east of Tel Aviv in Israel. The collection is owned by the Israeli optician David Brill. Brill's collection is on display at his optic store and has specimens from the fifteenth to the twentieth century.

Lorngette’s were slightly different. From the French word lorgner meaning to take a sidelong look at, and Middle French, from lorgne, which means to squint. Lorngette’s were also more of a fashion item than they were for vision correction, though they did work. They were held to the face by means of a single handle, long or short depending on the preference of the wearer, and like scissor-glasses, they had two lenses. The lorgnette was invented by George Adams (1750-1795) the younger, who was a British instrument maker and optician (his father, also George Adams, made microscopes and was a science writer). Both of the Adams men worked for royalty, the younger Adams who invented the Lorngette for George III.

Early Glasses

But where did the idea of glasses really begin?

The earliest glasses were not made of glass at all but of bone – specifically walrus tusk - which was worked and carved into a smooth shape that molded over both eyes and that had two eye slits through which light could pass allowing the wearer to protect his eyes from the elements and still see. The extreme cover of both eyes on front and sides was necessary for the Inuit people to protect them from blinding sun, snow glare, and high wind. I found several pair of carved of bone and wood that were found by the Old Bering Sea in Alaska. This style of glasses are still in existence as “traditional sunglasses” or snow-goggles and I found pictures of Inuit wearing them in modern times. However, the original pair date to around 400 CE.

In the 7th to 8th century the Mongols in China were wearing glasses made of metal and tin hammered into shape and finished with decorative perforations that doubled as eye-holes through which the wearer could see. These are similar to the bone and wood goggles of the Inuit.

The next reported instance of glasses is of the Chinese who used smoked quartz to shield their eyes during trials. Shielded eyes made it much harder to discern emotions and the Chinese came to favor eyeglasses because of that. But before even the Chinese, the earliest recorded instance of someone shading their eyes with a lens is of Roman Emperor Nero who used an emerald to shield his eyes while watching games at the Coliseum. This is the earliest recorded instance of anyone using any kind of lens to shield his eyes.

Many sources list Edward Scarlett of Soho, England as the inventor of spectacles but published evidence in the form of letters of the dukes of Milan, Francesco and Galeazzo Maria Sforza, dated 1462 and 1466 respectively, reveal the first detailed information about spectacles since their invention; namely, 1. Florence was producing in large quantities not only convex lenses for presbyopes, but also concave (diverging) lenses for myopes (i. e., about a half century before the latter were thought to have been developed).

Around 1730 Edward Scarlett advertised that he “Grindeth all manner of Optick Glasses (and)makes spectacles after a new method, marking the Focus of the Glass upon the Frame, it being approv'd of by all the Learned in Opticks as [the] Exactest way of fitting different Eyes”.

In 1760s in London opticians began producing split lenses. At first these were primarily for use by artists who had to do detail work. These then developed into the first bifocals in which a single lens could be made and split allowing for distance vision and reading vision.

A view through Google Glass
A view through Google Glass

Prismatic! Google Glass

The latest development to eyewear comes from Google Glass and is the latest in wearable computers. Google Glass is actually an Android-based computer that is all housed within the stem and frame of what look like eye-glasses with a small rectangular glass prism over the right eye. Images are projected onto the glass prism from where they appear to the viewer as they would on a normal 24 inch screen monitor. The wearer of the glasses – which have frames made by Luxottica, makers of Ray Ban and Oakley – can see his regular field of vision, what is in front of him, as well as the Google Glass information which is displayed to the right of his central field of vision.

How does it work? Google Glass is currently a voice-command and body-movement activated. Simple voice commands such as “Google John Doe” and “Call home”, “Check weather” etc activate the software. Other gestures such as simple head tilts and hand gestures stop and start the computer and control what is displayed on screen. Currently, the applications that run on Google Glass include Gmail, Google Plus, Google, weather applications, news service applications, facial recognition software, video recording and photography software, as well as share features used by Twitter and Facebook.

Initial users of Google Glass can purchase the glasses for $1500 (though I found them on Amazon ranging in price from $1500 to $2000). The buyer attends a Google Basecamp – there is one in New York on 9th Avenue and one in San Francisco and Los Angeles – whre a registered Glass instructor demonstrates how to use the product. These first users of Google Glass have been dubbed by Google as “Glass Explorers”. They are the nerdy, the needy, the rich, the chic, and the curious – anyone with $1500 to spend for what is essentially an overpriced beta product that has not yet realized its full functionality. Still, it’s a pretty neat device or toy and if you have the money why not. The cost of production is estimated by Forbes to be about $80 per unit, which ought make the final cost of the product somewhere around $300 (a three times mark-up is about average. More than this begins to get extreme). At $1500 Google’s mark-up is not quite justified.

This hasn’t stopped some police departments from trying out the latest in body cams. The Dubai police force has been using Google Glass for its face recognition software. Georgia police were among the first to use Google Glass – noting that the wearable body camera was helpful in traffic stops and is the same idea as the dash-cam or the rear window cam only it is interactive and can stream live video back to HQ where supervisors can monitor activities and be involved in situations in the field as they happen. Police have already captured arrests on their glass cam which you can see on YouTube, though of course, the faces have been pixelated out to protect the privacy rights of the people being recorded.

One of the concerns about Google Glass has been the ease with which wearers can potentially violate another person’s privacy. Glass can be worn in public and set to record strangers (as well as friends) without their knowledge either in conversation or just walking down the street and the facial recognition software has raised many eyebrows. It is as if Google Glass were like those fake X-Ray specs that we used to find on the backs of cereal boxes and in Bazooka bubblegum wrappers. Send fifty cents and get your specs! These were glasses that allowed the wearer to see through people’s clothes, that revealed all that was hidden and without anyone’s knowledge, let alone consent.

The truth is most smart phones and computers have the ability to run spyware recording apps (video) that allow you to surreptiously record another person without the device even being pointed at them. As for audio recording, that seems frankly remarkably easy with existing hardware: couldn’t one set their computer or cell phone to the record function and keep it on the table – recording whole conversations that ought not be recorded? It seems to me that the real difference between existing hardware/software and Google Glass is that it is worn as glasses and is body-ware.

In some ways, this ought instill more confidence. With Google Glass you see the device on the person’s face and the product isn’t so slick yet that it could pass as ordinary glasses by any stretch. At least you know it if someone is wearing Google Glass. You can ask them to remove their glasses or you can walk away if you are really concerned. Some work places have banned wearing Google Glass on their premises.

The real trouble begins when criminals get wind of how to use it and begin surveilling stores and museums with the camera and video software and using the additional functionality to obtain blue prints and architectural drawings of buildings and museums in real time. This could then be used to stage large-scale robberies such as art thefts as well as terrorist attacks, which could be carried out with greater ease.

The good news is that some emergency services workers have demonstrated how Google Glass can also be used to save lives, allowing firefighters quick access to building plans, structural drawings, and blue prints that can be quickly referenced during an emergency and could save lives.

A cabinet of glass eyes
A cabinet of glass eyes

Glass Eyes

Artificial eyes have been known, on occasion, to explode. And in fact, the more frequently they are worn, the greater the chance of the eye exploding. So what causes this explosion? Researchers think it has to do with a vacuum created in the glass of the prosthetic that builds up, causing pressure and finally explosion. The likelihood was greater in very hot or very cold weather. The Opthalmological Record of 1916 records no fewer than eighteen cases of shattering eyes: Four patients suffered this unnerving experience on two separate occasions! A review in the British Journal Of Ophthalmology (1921) notes:

It would appear that quite a number of these eyes explode in the manufacturer's stores before they are sent out. The cause of the collapse of the thin walls is due to the fact that the glass is imperfectly annealed and encloses a partial vacuum of rather high degree and any sudden change of temperature is apt to produce unequal expansion or contraction of the glass which is unequal in thickness and which is then less able to withstand the continuous atmospheric pressure...most of the explosions have happened during either very hot or very cold weather.

Iridology eye chart map of correspondences
Iridology eye chart map of correspondences

Windows to the Soul

The eyes have long been spoken of as windows to the soul. The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs records the original Latin "vultus est index animi (also occulus animi index, the face (also, eye) is the index of the mind" and "The eyes...are the wyndowes of the mynde" to about 1545. There is also a Yiddish proverb, “The eyes are the mirror of the soul”. Who first said this or wrote it is near impossible to tell: some say it was Shakespeare (though that seems rather late), others say it was Cicero, still others point to scriptural sources. Either way, there seems to be a lot of literary agreement because it is one of the most quoted sentiments of all time as well as one that we readily accept. If you want to know someone, just look into his eyes.

And who among us hasn’t had the experience of talking to a loved one or one of our children and known that something was wrong or that they were lying from the look in their eyes. You could also, some say, fall in love with someone at “first glance” – it all depended on the look in that person’s eyes. And Kinsey, he told us that it was our eyes that were the most responsive organ during arousal. That our pupil grows and expands during excitement or interest so that we can take in more of the person we are looking at as the pupil expands to take in light. Pupil dilation, Kinsey said, told us a lot.

But before Kinsey was Ignaz von Peczely, a 19th-century Hungarian physician. The story has it that Ignaz was watching an owl one day when the owl broke its leg. Ignaz noted that exactly the moment the owl broke its leg, a black streak appeared in the owl’s iris – like an ink dot or a tear. Ignaz is reported to have noticed the same iris discoloration in a man he was treating some years later and who, like the owl, had broken his leg. So it was that Ignaz made a correlation between physical injury on one part of the body as reflected by pigment changes in the iris.

Iridology grew out of Ignaz’s observations and conclusions: it is the science of diagnosing bodily illness by marks and changes in the iris. These marks show up as black or brown spots in the colored part of the eye (like freckles on the iris). Iridologists also read any color changes to the eye or rings around the pupil (see iridology eye chart for full explanation). The eye is divided into quadrants and each quadrant of the eye corresponds to and reflects a different part of the human body. Changes in a given quadrant tell the practitioner where to look for malignancy or potential problems.

One prominent practitioner, Bernard Jensen, described it thus: "Nerve fibers in the iris respond to changes in body tissues by manifesting a reflex physiology that corresponds to specific tissue changes and locations."[9] This would mean that a bodily condition translates to a noticeable change in the appearance of the iris, but this has been disproven through many studies.[ Other features that iridologists look for are contraction rings and Klumpenzellen, which may indicate various other health conditions, as interpreted in context.

Generally the lighter color of the fibers, the more activity and sensation (such pain) there is in that bodily area of that organ. The darker an area or eye-fiber, the less sensation or pain in that area. So then a bright white fiber in the lower back quadrant of the eye would be indicative of pain or nerve pain whereas a dark spot or freckle in the same area suggests more severe injury that has completely disrupted nerve activity, blocking all sensation.

The science of iridology has been widely disputed though there are still quite a number of practitioners. It is viewed as part of alternative medicine. There are those who swear by it and say it works – and others who say that it is quackery and doesn’t work at all. In the final account, disproving it is as difficult as is proving it. As it has been since the beginning, there are believers and non-believers. We seem to readily believe that our eyes are the windows to the soul, that we can tell the truth by looking in someone’s eyes, that we fall in love through eye-contact – and those who believe this swear by it. So why can’t our eyes be diagnostic tools? If we hide our eyes to conceal, as Dylan tell us, his eyes hold secrets so he shades them with dark sunglasses. What do we lose, if anything, by changing the color of our eyes with colored contact lenses? Do we fall in love as readily? Is expression changed from the genuine experience of seeing someone’s eye color (I’d argue that correctivce lenses can only enhance our human experience because wiethout them we wouldn’t be able to see at all). But changing the color of the eyes – perhaps if our eyes are the window to the soul we have given them stained glass windows in myriad colors.


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