History of Lenses for Kids

Visby: History of Lenses

Lenses are so amusing with their ability to either converge or diverge light beams to a point or away from a point. Some of you are already using lenses on your spectacles. Some others experience it by having a magnifying glass. However, do you know about the history of lenses? Let’s learn when these lenses were first used by humans and how different types of lenses originated.

History of Lenses: Origin of The Name and The Earliest Lens

The word lens is derived from the Latin word ‘Lens’. In Latin, lens means lentil. You know what a lentil is; it is an edible pulse. Well, a convex lens or a biconvex lens has the shape of a lentil and that’s how the name lens originated. In some dictionaries lens (optics) has an alternative spelling – lense. However, most mainstream dictionaries do not accept the spelling lense.

Nimrud Lens - History of Lenses
The Nimrud Lens

The earliest known usage of lenses were in Assyria, during 7th century BC. Assyrians used Nimrud Lens as a magnifying glass or as a burning glass. Nimrud lens, which is also known as Layard lens, is a 3000 years old piece of rock crystal. It was unearthed by Austen Henry Layard in 1850 from present Iraq. As the lens was made from natural rock crystal, the material is not deteriorated significantly over time. The lens that was unearthed by Layard is preserved in the British Museum (London).

History of Lenses: Other Known Ancient Lenses

Not only Assyrians, lenses were also used in Egypt and in Ancient Greece. There were mentions about lenses in Egyptian hieroglyphs in the 8th century BC. The hieroglyphs chart simple glass meniscal lenses.

However, the earliest written records of lenses were found in The Clouds, a play by the Aristophanes. Aristophanes was a comic playwright from Ancient Greece. He is known as the Father of  Comedy and also as the Prince of Ancient Comedy.

Visby: History of Lenses
One of the Visby lenses

Scholars argue that lenses were widely used during the ancient eras, spanning several millennia. Ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Assyrians, and Babylonians used lenses for different purposes like artisans for fine work and administrative for authenticating seal impressions.

Visby lenses were discovered in 1999 from the Viking harbour town of  Fröjel in Sweden. Visby lenses were produced during 11th to 12th century. These lenses have an imaging quality comparable to that of

Reading Stone: History of Lenses
Reading Stone

aspheric lenses of 1950s. Between 11th and 13th century reading stones were invented and was popular among monks to assist in illuminating manuscripts.

Lenses got popularity in Europe, led by Italy, from 1280s. The usage of spectacles ignited the optical industry’s establishment and growth, first in Venice and Florence. The lenses were widely used later in spectacle making centers of Netherlands and Germany. Further experimentation with lenses and studies of optics led to the invention of the compound optical microscope and the refracting telescope. The compound optical microscope was invented around 1595 and the refracting telescope was invented in 1608.

So, that was about the history of lenses, and if you love to read more about lenses, do not forget to read our science lesson on lenses.

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