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Getting my first pair of bifocals (no line, of course) got me to thinking: was that story about Benjamin Franklin inventing them true? After all, some other tales I heard in grade school – like George Washington and the cherry tree – proved to be the product of someone’s imagination.

Portrait Benjamin Franklin by Charles Willson Peale, 1785

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Charles Willson Peale, 1785, via Wikimedia Commons

Well, bifocals really were the brainchild of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), who improved upon the original medieval invention (created centuries after my novels take place).

Franklin might have been wearing glasses as a young man in the 1730s. Whether he avoided reading glasses like many of us who approach middle age is unknown; however, he found himself with two sets of spectacles, one for distance and one for reading.

Perhaps in the 1760s, he got tired of alternating pairs and had an optician cut the lenses in half and insert those semicircles into a single frame, readers on the bottom, distance vision on top. Not always an easy process. A 1779 letter from an optician says that he broke three pairs of glasses to produce one set of bifocals. And they were expensive then, too.

1785 Letter from Benjamin Franklin to George Whatley

1785 letter from Benjamin Franklin to George Whatley, Library of Congress image

Franklin was pleased with his double spectacles as he wrote in a letter to a friend in 1785. Along with eliminating the annoyance of changing glasses, he was better able to see his food at the French dinner table and see the faces of people speaking to him in French, thus allowing him to use visual cues to more easily comprehend the language.

Interestingly, the term bifocal came decades after Franklin’s death, when John Isaac Hawkins coined the term in 1824, two years before inventing trifocals.


Benjamin Franklin-Father of the Bifocal,” Antique Spectacles and Other Vision Aids