Benjamin Franklin-Father of the Bifocal


Slideshow of Spectacles Related to Benjamin Franklin

Slideshow of Artwork Related to Benjamin Franklin

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Adapted from the important key article by Dr. Charles Letocha, also the wonderful book by Dr. John Levene and finally the comprehensive paper (yet unpublished) by Stuart Green.

In 1990 the year of the bicentennial celebration of Benjamin Franklin’s death (1706-1790) a comprehensive article was published by Dr. Charles Letocha, “The Invention and Early Manufacture of Bifocals”. It presented Benjamin Franklin as the inventor of bifocals. It is still considered the definitive paper on this topic because no new information has surfaced to the contrary during the past 15 years. This current year 2006 is the tercentenary of Franklin’s birth and therefore we can again recognize Franklin for his major role in the development of bifocal eyeglasses. No one else deserves this esteemed honor: Ben Franklin-Father of the Bifocal.

The invention of bifocals had been reviewed in great detail by Dr. John R. Levene in Chapter 6 of his book Clinical Refraction and Visual Science, Butterworth’s, 1977. Highly regarded as a diplomat and as a scientist, Franklin is generally acknowledged for all his ingenious contributions to many very practical inventions. He had talents and also numerous interests and his natural curiosity led to the search to discover ways to make things work better. One of his greatest innovations was “my double spectacles” and Franklin has been quite appropriately recognized and universally admired as their inventor.

Certainly among the most useful inventions of all time bifocals have serviced billions of people over the past 200 + years. Compound corrective lenses, usually bifocals or trifocals, and with increasing frequency, progressive multifocal length eyeglasses are the modern-day result of the remarkable evolution from Benjamin Franklin’s original simple and practical creation.

THE EVIDENCE SUPPORTING FRANKLIN

1). Benjamin Franklin was a hyperope who likely required eyeglasses originally in the 1730s. By the late 1750s he was usually described wearing them and they became an integral part of his face, at least for distance use. Many paintings and contemporary sketches and satirical cartoons show him represented wearing his eyeglasses. He admitted that he could not “distinguish a letter or even of large print without them”.

2). The Library Company of Philadelphia, founded by Franklin and some of his friends, became America’s first lending library. In its print archives there exists a 1764 political cartoon which depicts Franklin wearing an unusual pair of eyeglasses, interpreted by some knowledgeable people as bifocals because the upper portion of each lens appears different from the lower portion. Take a close look and decide for yourself.

3). Von Rohr and several others credit optician Samuel Pierce with making bifocals for Franklin. Pierce described people wearing bifocals in 1775 and he himself may have worn them in the 1760’s. Although this is all noted in the Levene’s chapter no hard evidence is presented.

4). Mr. H. Sykes, an English optician living in Paris, with a business on the Place du Palais-Royale, wrote to Franklin April 24, 1779 and explained the delay in sending Franklin’s order, complained he was having difficulty making the eyeglasses. “I should have sent your spectacles sooner, but in compliance with your favor of the 20th inst., have cut a second pair, in which I have been unfortunate for I broke and spoilt three glasses.”Sykes had apparently damaged them while “cutting” them in half. The word “cut” is emphasized as opposed to the word “grind”. Even Sykes’ charge for this service (18f a pair) was quite excessive when compared to the normal fee of making simple ordinary glasses.

5). During his stay in Passy, outside of Paris, Franklin (serving as the American envoy to the Court of Louis XVI) described in a letter dated August 21, 1784 to his close friend and philanthropist George Whatley:
…….”I cannot distinguish a letter even of large print; but am happy in the invention of double spectacles, which serving for distant objects as well as near ones, make my eyes as useful to me as ever they were: If all the other defects and infirmities were as easily and cheaply remedied, it would be worth while for friends to live a good deal longer…..”

6). In a letter dated November 15, 1784 Whatley wrote back:
“I have spoken to Peter Dollond about YOUR invention of double spectacles, and, by all I can garner,…….”

7). Another correspondence with Whatley May 23, 1785 further explains Franklin’s basic position on this matter. Noted London optician Peter Dollond had stated they were only good for “particular eyes”. Franklin’s reply is certainly very persuasive evidence that he was the inventor:
…………..”By M. Dollond’s saying that MY double spectacles can only serve particular eyes, I doubt he has not been rightly informed of their construction. I imagine it will be found pretty generally true, that the same convexity of glass, through which a man sees clearly at distance proper for reading, is not the best for greater distances. I therefore had formerly two pairs of spectacles, which I shifted occasionally, as in traveling I sometimes read, and often wanted to regards the prospects. Finding the change troublesome, and not always sufficiently ready, I had the glasses cut and half of each kind associated in the same circle, thus

(his well-known drawing is in this letter which now resides in the Library of Congress).

Franklin's own sketch of "double spectacles", The Library of Congress

By this means, as I wear my spectacles constantly, I have only to move my eyes up or down, as I want to see distinctly far or near, the proper glass being always ready.
This I find more particularly convenient since my being in France, the glasses that serve me best at table to see what I eat, not being the best to see the faces of those on the other side of the table who speak to me; and when one’s ears are not well accustomed to the sounds of a language, a sight of the movements in the features of him that speaks helps to explain, so that I understand French better by the help of my spectacles.”

8). Whatley’s next reply dated July 22, 1785;
……….”The Dollonds are obliged by what you have been at pains to say, and describe of your double spectacles. They fully comprehend it at eh same time say, for such sight as yours are common. That therefore they only make for such as like yours when bespoke.”

9). Charles Wilson Peale painted Benjamin Franklin in 1785 and the painting is the only one showing Franklin wearing double spectacles. The bifocals are a prominent feature of this famous artwork. No earlier depiction of anyone else wearing bifocals is known to exist anywhere in the world! This unique art treasure is at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

10). In 1788 Peale made his own bifocals, as noted in his diary for August 25th. These became quite helpful when he painted miniatures. “It would appear that Charles Wilson Peale helped to popularize bifocals in America because he probably taught their method of manufacture to John McAllister, Sr. first American optician” (the Letocha article).

11). Correspondence from John Fenno, editor of the Gazette of the United States, to his wife March 8, 1789 described a meeting in Philadelphia during the last year of Franklin’s life. The evidence in this letter points strongly to Franklin. It currently is housed at the William C. Clements Library, University of Michigan.

“He informed me that he had worn spectacles for 50 years. He had them on and as they appeared to be differently constructed from any I had seen the circumstance led to some inquiry - each eye appeared to be formed of two pieces of glass divided horizontally – he informed me that he had always worn such – the upper part was to view distant objects, the lower to read with. ….”

12). In 1790 Dr. William Rowley published the book A Treatise on One Hundred and Eighteen Principal Diseases soon after Franklin passed away. He quoted the May 23, 1785 letter to Whatley… “A species of spectacles has been recommended by the late Dr. Franklin…” Thus he was the first to inform the medical community of Franklin’s invention. He also went on to say that he recommended double spectacles to some of his friends, “by whom they are highly approved.”

13). In the August 1791 issue of Massachusetts Magazine, the general public first learned of Franklin’s double spectacles. Lewis Leprelete wrote to the editors quoting the same May 23, 1785 letter from Franklin to Whatley announcing that “A species of spectacles has been recommended by the late Dr. Franklin…..as it is an important object, I have no doubt but you will be pleased to gratify the publick with it,…”

14). President Thomas Jefferson communicated with John McAllister Sr. and also with Charles Peale in a fascinating group of letters between 1806 and 1808. referring to the Franklin bifocal on Nov. 12, 1806. This letter is held by the Library of Congress:

“You have heretofore furnished me with spectacles, so reduced in size as to give facility to the looking over their top without moving them. This has been a great convenience………Those who are obliged to use spectacles know what a convenience it would be to have different magnifiers in the same frame. Dr. Franklin tried this by semicircular glasses joined horizontally, the upper & lower semicircles of different powers, which he told me answered perfectly. I wish to try it and therefore send you a drawing No. 2 agreeably to which, exactly, I will ask another pair of spring frames to be made.”

Jefferson had been in France during the 1784-9 period, being successor to Franklin as minister. Obviously he observed Franklin wearing his bifocals when they were together. Later in 1807 Jefferson showed his satisfaction with his new bifocals in a letter to Peale March 29th 1807. He noted that he had “adopted Dr. Franklin’s plan of half glasses of different focal distances, with great advantage” Jefferson wrote to McAllister on March 16, 1808 that he was “extremely satisfied with Dr. Franklin’s method of joining the spectacles by composing each glass of two half-glasses of different magnifying powers, and those you made for me answer positively except that the frames being circular, the glasses are always turning around and bringing the seam between the two half glasses in the way of the eye. To prevent this the frame should be oval.”

McAllister had earlier replied to Jefferson, who was by then President of the United, that he had already made such glasses for members of the Peale family and instructed Jefferson how to measure the distance between his pupils and determine the focal length of his current glasses.

15). The well-known French optician-engineer Jean Gabriel Augustin Chevallier discussed the 'Besicles a la Franklin' in the Gazette de Sante (June 11, 1806) which was subsequently reprinted in his Conservateur de la Vue (1810) and later editions of this well known book.

16). Seventeen years after Franklin died, Charles Wilson Peale painted a portrait of himself wearing bifocals.

17). John Isaac Hawkins, engineer and inventor of the trifocal in 1826, coined the term bifocal in 1824 and he credited Franklin with the invention of the bifocal.

ADDITIONAL GENERAL POINTS OF INTEREST

1) The idea of a split lens or lenses of different powers in one frame was originally suggested by J. Zahn back in 1683 and also by CG Hertel in 1716. In both these instances however it was possibly for trial lenses and not for use as eyeglasses. Does anyone know what these lenses definitely were for?

2) Benjamin Franklin began to advertise eyeglasses for sale in his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, as early as 1738. With moderate hyperopia he would have found eyeglasses to correct farsightedness useful by this time, about age 30.

3) No double spectacles (split-lens bifocals) have ever been found among Franklin’s possessions nor, for that matter, have any of his ordinary eyeglasses been found either.

4) Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), 1st President of the Royal Academy and an eminent artist, was known to be a myope. His famous self-portrait of 1788 shows him wearing silver turn-pin wig spectacles. He may have worn bifocals made by Dollond. However he was myopic and could merely take his glasses off to do reading and writing and possibly therefore even painting.

5) Benjamin West (1738-1820), 2nd President of the Royal Academy and another eminent artist, wore bifocals perhaps made by Samuel Pierce. But West was a hyperope and likely would not have required them until the early 1790s. West was thirty years younger than Franklin and likely too young to have required them earlier that Franklin. In 1824 Samuel Pierce recorded comments that West had worn bifocals for years. Any artist would have appreciated the usefulness of bifocals, especially as he/she grew older. Pierce commented that he had known “several painters and other artists” who had used bifocals when they reached 60 – 70 years of age.

6) Since both Benjamin West and his teacher Sir Joshua Reynolds could have had bifocal spectacles in the mid-1780s it is easy to see why some historians have suggested that either one of them could have originally invented them. But neither West nor Reynolds ever spoke up that they had been the first to conceive of bifocals. Neither of them has been as directly linked with this invention as Franklin has.

7) Franklin’s name has been typically associated with bifocals, not the name of West or Reynolds. This invention was attributed to Franklin during the lifetimes of both West and Reynolds. If either of them was the inventor or if either knew of an inventor other than Franklin, wouldn’t they have said something about it?

8) The “London opticians” advertised pretty heavily. If they had invented something as interesting as bifocals, wouldn’t one expect they would have mentioned it in their advertising?

9) Patents were granted to Addison Smith in 1783 and to J.R. Richardson in London in 1797 for what could be called an alternative to bifocals. Each was comprised of an extra pair of lenses hinged to the main spectacles, the Addison Smith variety came down from above while the Richardson variety rotated in from the sides behind the distance correction, in order to correct for near work. Dutch painter Rienk Jelderhuis is shown in a portrait in 1791 wearing an unusual style of double glasses. He had invented these with the distance prescription fixed in a frame attached to the top of each reading glass.

10) Thus during Franklin’s lifetime and shortly thereafter, imaginative opticians came up with several eyeglasses designs that could be used for both near and distance vision. Franklin’s bifocals however gradually became the dominant form of combined eyeglasses, although there were some problems with them. Opticians had a challenging time grinding the seam edge perfectly flat and keeping the half lenses from falling out of the frames. Lenses also rotated in the round frame also creating a problem. Another great annoyance was the dirt that accumulated in the seam line between the two half lenses, causing a visible dark line at the transition ridge.

11) Here is a bit of trivia about U.S. presidents and glasses. H. R. Brands in his biography of Andrew Jackson, writing about his first inauguration wrote "Jackson remained standing before the crowd. He wore two pairs of eyeglasses: one currently on his eyes, the other-his reading glasses-thrown on the top of his head" One can assume from this that Ben Franklin's bifocals were still not in common use by 1829. (per Paul A. Rittenhouse)

12) George Elkington (1801-1865) patented two pair together in the same frame with a 45 degree angle induced in the bottom pair. Therefore they were half eyes and also pulpit glasses.

13) Isaac Schnaitman (1795-1875) was a German immigrant to Philadelphia who patented in 1834 a one-piece bifocal which is in fact inverted (upturned). To create this he took a minus tool and ground a small round section at the top of a plus lens.

14) 1861 John Braham patented auxiliary glasses (front hangers or grab-fronts).

15) In the OAICC Newsletter July 1998, N. 64 “Now that the College of Optometrists is housed at 42 Craven Street in London it is of particular note that Benjamin Franklin, the Inventor of Bifocals, lived at 36 Craven Street, just a few yards away, from 1757 until 1772. ***This statement is, by itself, significant confirmation because this publication and its greatly admired and highly-respected editor Ronald MacGregor are considered authoritative to me - DAF)

ADDITIONAL RESEARCH

Two researchers who I admire and respect have also examined the available evidence regarding Franklin. Their conclusions were:

Dr. Charles Letocha, York, Pa

“It seems most likely that Benjamin Franklin did invent bifocals, most likely when he was in London in the 1760s or early 1770s. As a rule Franklin’s inventions were practical things to solve practical problems. These included the Franklin stove, the lightning rod, a flexible catheter, an odometer, and a long arm to retrieve books from high shelves. The bifocal fits very nicely into this Franklinesque list."

Alan McBrayer, Charlotte, NC

1. The primary sources by Franklin with his description were the genesis of his idea.
2. This invention became known in England in a widely-read book in 1789 and in America in 1790, and nobody stepped forward and claimed prior invention. Even English newspapers and books attribute bifocals to Franklin.
3. The seeming lack of real primary sources that show early use by others (Peale excepted). There are no primary source documents that place bifocals on any faces except Franklin and Peale before 1800.
4. ***The 1804 comments of William Jones, apprentice to Benjamin Martin, employee of George Adams, Jr. and his father's business, and partner in his own business. In A Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts, March 1804, Volume VII, page 194, he mentions “The bisected glasses of Dr. Franklin”. Jones spent nearly fifty years in the thick of the optical scene in England and in this statement he attributes the invention to Franklin. Jones worked at "W. & S. Jones", a very large optical manufacturer on Hobron Street. They had a series of catalogs 1792 - c1810 that listed about every optical instrument available. Jones personally knew Franklin, was a member of the American Philosophical Society, and was very much at the top of the optical scene in Britain 1760 and then for the fifty years thereafter. He is about as "primary source" as it gets. If split bifocals pre-existed Franklin in England somewhere, Jones would have heard about it. His name can be professionally linked with virtually any prominent optician or scientist of his day.

CONCLUSIONS

Bifocals are attributed to Ben Franklin and he probably came up with the idea by himself. He did not produce them himself but instead had some optician in London or France make them for him. Franklin and his close circle of friends, including West and Reynolds, all probably wore them.

Franklin’s discovery of the bifocal is generally felt to have occurred in the early 1760’s. Most hyperopic presbyopes don't go into bifocals until their early 40s so a most realistic earliest date, an educated guess regarding Franklin himself, would be while he was living in London and that started in 1757.It is only from his 1784 letter to George Whatley that we have Franklin’s first statement (with his own drawing) to confirm his involvement. The 1789 Fenno letter is also quite important because it is unique in attempting to possibly date the invention.

The bifocal was so typical of Franklin’s many inventions - another practical, elegant, simple solution to a problem he carefully defined. “It just seems so Franklin-esque”. The important thing to Franklin was always the idea – it would make life simpler for an aging man – “another thing to be freely shared with all old men so that their lives might be made easier” (from a famous quotation by Charles Snyder).

OTHERS WHO ARE ACKNOWLEDGED FOR THEIR KIND SUPPORT

Alan McBrayer, authority on American eyeglass makers of the 19th century
Adrian Whitcher and Jane Wess from the Science Museum
John Alviti from the Franklin Institute
Barbara Katus of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Jeffrey Ray of the Atwater Kent Museum
Clayton Lewis and John Dann of the Clements Library
Charlene Peacock and Jim Green from the Library Company of Philadelphia.
Melissa Clemmer and Page Talbott from the Franklin Tercentenary,
Ellen Cohn from the Yale University Library
My good friend and advisor Dr. Charles (Chuck) Letocha
Neil Handley of the British Optical Association Museum
Stuart Green
Several advanced collectors who are sharing photos of their early and more recent split lens bifocals

SUPPLEMENTARY NOTES

Formal letters have been written to the Citizen’s Stamp Advisory Committee at the U.S. Postal Service Headquarters in Washington with the suggestion to honor Benjamin Franklin for the invention of the bifocal. The bifocal has certainly impacted billions of people worldwide in the last 230 + years. As one of the greatest Founding Fathers for the United States Ben Franklin has become world-renowned for his many other achievements. Numerous stamps already honor him however a U.S. commemorative stamp has never been commissioned to acknowledge the specific outstanding accomplishment of the BIFOCAL LENS. It would be appropriate to recognize him for yet another major contribution to mankind..."Franklin: Father of the Bifocal"

The process of creating a new stamp apparently takes at least several years. Please read each of the letters below and you are encouraged to also consider writing. We can all make a difference by lobbying the Committee and everyone will benefit.

October 10, 2003 letter

April 19, 2005 letter

November 9, 2006 letter

October 30, 2009 letter

Contact the postal service also by writing to:

Jean Picker Firstenberg
Chairperson
Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee
c/o Stamp Development
U.S. Postal Service
475 L’Enfant Plaza SW, Room 3300
Washington, DC 20260-3501


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