Benjamin Franklin has long been credited with the innovation of bifocals, yet whether this is historically exact or just a partisan legend is a issue of debate. Most serious historians now agree that, whilst the is a genuine possibility, the hard proof is merely lacking.

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The PoliticianStephen Elmer1777

Benjamin Franklin, writer, politician, scientist and optician, to be a great advocate of air bathing and is well-known to have actually favoured sit naked each morning before an open window. Presumably he did no curtail this activity while lodging at what is now number 36 Craven Street (a few doors under from the current College the Optometrists' headquarters) in between 1757 and also 1775.

Franklin have the right to still be seen in the street (fully clothed) in this oil painting by royal academician Stephen Elmer, dated 1777. The portrait was got by the Museum in 1939. A succeeding copy that the painting is additionally on display at the united state Embassy structure in Paris. There is some justified dispute as to whether the topic of the portrait is indeed Franklin (and we mention some that the other possibilities in our audio guide), however the painting has actually been determined as him due to the fact that the 18th century.

You may click on the picture of this paint to enlarge it.

Franklin's use of spectacles


Franklin is known to have actually worn temple spectacles after his come in England, together must have actually done various other members of his family. In February 1757 he created to his wife Deborah Franklin to describe the brand-new furnishings in his Craven Street lodgings: 'Look at the figures on the China Bowl and also Coffee Cups, with your glasses on; they will certainly bear examining'. In this painting, however, that is presented wearing silver- folding sleep spectacles, a precursor the pince-nez, yet the College's attention in this portrait stems not from the eyewear depicted, however from the insurance claim that Franklin was the inventor the the split-bifocal lens.


The idea of a split lens, for use as a trial lens rather than for spectacles, had been argued by Zahn in 1683 and, again, by Hertel in 1716, however there is no proof that together lenses served a practical, ophthalmic function until several years later.

Franklin wore glasses continually after ~ 1776. He admitted in 1784 that without castle he can not 'distinguish a letter even of large print'.

In 1779, whilst on his diplomatic mission come France i beg your pardon lasted from 1777-1785, Franklin had actually ordered a pair of glasses from the English optician, Sykes, who had actually a organization on the ar du Palais-Royale. The reality that Sykes composed to Franklin explaining the his spectacles had been delayed due to the lenses having broken three times throughout cutting has been take away as proof that the ambassador was ordering something the end of the ordinary. The price of 18F, which that paid for the spectacles, was certainly higher than to be usual at the time.

In a letter of respectable 1784, composed to his friend George Whatley, Franklin asserted himself 'happy in the development of dual spectacles, which serving for far-off objects and also near ones, do my eyes as beneficial to me as ever they were'. It have to be provided that he did not define them as 'my' invention, nor must the wording be taken necessarily to average that the innovation was recent.

Whatley replied, referring to the spectacles together 'your invention' and as miscellaneous he had actually been mentioning with the English optician, Peter Dollond. The Dollonds were, the seems, producing spectacles the this, or a similar, type, as a bespoke service, yet were not persuaded that the idea had commercial potential.

Bifocal glasses were defined in a more letter of Franklin's come Whatley, date 23 might 1785. In this the again described 'my twin spectacles' (where 'my' require only denote ownership) and noted a sketch. The letter continued: 'The same convexity that glass, through which a male sees clearest and best at the distance ideal for reading, is not the finest for better distances. I because of this had previously two pair the spectacles, which ns shifted occasionally, as in travel I sometimes read, and also often wanted to regard the prospects. Recognize this readjust troublesome, and also not constantly sufficiently ready, I had actually the glasses cut and half of each kind linked in the same circle. Through this means, together I undertake my glasses constantly, I have only to move my eye up or down, together I desire to check out distinctly much or near, the suitable glasses being constantly ready.'

A modern-day replica pair of the typeof split bifocal spectacles knownto have actually been worn by BenjaminFranklin in the mid 1780s

Some historians, however, have argued that in this letter come Whatley, Franklin describes an experiment lugged out much more than two decades earlier, in London. A letter indigenous the newspaper editor, man Fenno, to his wife dated 8 march 1789, supports this theory. In it Fenno describes a meeting v Franklin in i m sorry the yonsei statesman had mentioned wearing the glasses over numerous years: 'He educated me the he had actually worn spectacles for 50 years; every eye appeared to be created of two pieces that glass split horizontally - he notified me that he had always worn such'.

The Fenno letter also fits in through the reality that Franklin suffered from hyperopia, request spectacles because that this condition as early as the 1730s. This would have actually made him likely to have actually benefited from bifocals by the moment he arrived in London in 1757.

Before leaving America for the very first time Franklin had clearly had an interest in optical developments. He imported vision aids and advertised 'spectacles of number of sorts' in the Pennsylvania Gazette. Our knowlege that he was associated in the it is provided of spectacles in his early adult life may reason us to consider that he might well have had actually the interest to experiment v bifocals in ~ an previously date.

A actual pair of split bifocalspectacles, probably c.1790sthough the sliding sides meanwe cannot guarantee lock areany previously than 1806

Yet the only portrait of Franklin in which he is illustrated wearing bifocals is one through Charles Willson Peale, dated 1785, as soon as the old male was age 81 and living when again in Pennsylvania. This does in ~ least indicate that we would be right to say the Franklin presented bifocals come America. Wider public awareness of the invention only came around in the beforehand 1790s, adhering to Franklin's death.

During this duration several authors released the Whatley letter, thereby cementing in the general public mind the link in between bifocals and also Franklin. Peale, having actually painted Franklin put on bifocals, is known to have actually made his own pair in 1788 and may have actually been responsible for presenting the principle to the very first US optician, john McAllister, part time after 1799.The idea for bifocal spectacles, attributed by some people to Franklin in both Britain and the US, (though never ever patented by the or anyone else) soon led to more developments. The use of hinged supplementary visors (to hold reading lenses) to be patented in London by man Richardson in 1797. By 1836 Isaac Schnaitman, a German immigrant come Philadelphia, had actually taken out a patent top top one-piece lenses with both distance and reading parts ground on come one item of glass.Another claimant come the title?


Benjamin West (1738-1820), one American artist, initially from Philadelphia, to be a natural friend because that Franklin in London. He would certainly later end up being President of the royal Academy indigenous 1792-1815. West is known to have actually been very early wearer of 'divided glasses' or bifocals, possibly before 1800, yet probably not before Franklin. That has actually not stopped chroniclers pushing the insurance claim of West or his predecessor at the imperial Academy, teacher Joshua Reynolds, to have actually 'invented' bifocals in the 1760s.


Reynolds was a an individual friend who regularly visited Franklin in Craven Street, therefore he would have seen Franklin making use of bifocals if, indeed, he had been law so. Historic images the Reynolds display him utilizing only solitary vision lenses.

Why anyone have to be so determined to attribute their innovation to a significant named separation, personal, instance is probably the an ext baffling question.

It does seem likely, however, the these men, specifically West, were using break-up lenses provided by London opticians for creative purposes, if no for common vision, and also that this may have actually prompted Franklin come order some.

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The critical Word...for now

Unless further proof emerges, all we deserve to say for certain is that Franklin was one of the very first people to wear break-up bifocals (an 'early adopter') and this action of wearing them brought about his name to be linked with the form from very early date. This no doubt contributed greatly to your popularisation. The proof implies, however, that once he sought to order lenses the this type the London opticians were already familiar with them. Other members that Franklin's circle of British girlfriend may have actually worn them also earlier, native the 1760s, however it is at best uncertain (and maybe improbable?) that split bifocal lenses had actually a well known gentleman inventor.

Why not combine your visit come the brother Optical combination Museum in ~ the college of Optometrists with a visit to our close to neighbour, the Benjamin Franklin House, the only surviving Franklin residence in the world?