History of Optics and Lenses


Ever since the first ancient scientists started experimenting and trying to decipher the secrets of life, universe and the world we live in, one specific question became apparent to them – what is light, how does it travel and how can we take advantage of its properties. Answers to that question started appearing during the life of the great Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia with the creation of first crude lenses. From that point on, scientists from all major cultures in Asia, Middle East, Africa, and Europe started working tirelessly on testing, hypothesizing, and building test instruments with a goal of depicting light behavior, properties and the way it interact with matter. Finally after more than 2 thousand years, discoveries in many fields of science enabled engineers and inventors to start testing “modern optics”, which focuses on the research of brand new areas such as wave optics and quantum optics.

Around 700BC ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians started polishing crystals (often quartz) in attempt to replicate optical abilities that they noticed can be made with water. One of the most famous examples of those original lenses is Nimrud lens. Created in the ancient Assyria between 750 and 710 BC, this lens was used as decorative piece, magnifying glass or tool for starting fires. First steps in optics that were made in Africa and Middle East only fueled imagination and resolve of the Greek and Roman mathematicians, physicist and inventors whose experiments formed the basis of the classical optics. Three most popular school of thought regarding optics in that time were “emission theory” formed by Plato, “intro mission theory” that was supported by Democritus, Epicurus, Aristotle, add the “geometrical optics” that was created by Euclid several hundred years after Plato. All these theories sadly almost disappeared from the scientific circles in Europe after the fall of Roman Empire, managing to survive in Middle East where Muslim scientist continued developing new techniques for testing properties of light. The most famous writers from that time were Al-Kindi (801–873), Persian mathematician Ibn Sahl and Alhazen whose influential “Book of Optics” managed to re-introduce modern theories of the properties of light to the Europe in the 1200s. This book that for the first time claimed that the light travels in the straight line and can bounce of all matter remained one of the most important optic texts in the Europe well into 17th century.

In 1284, history of optics changed dramatically with the Friar Salvino D'Armate’s creation of the first wearable eyeglass. Before second decade was finished, Italian engineers and inventors in Venice established first Eyeglass guild and started exploring this exciting scientific field with full force. This new craft soon spread across Europe, especially in Netherlands and Germany who became centers of the eyeglass creation in 14th and 15th century. This expansion of optic research soon enabled scientist to create startling discoveries. Johannes Kepler expanded the geometric optics in his early 17th century writings, forming first correct thoughts about the inner working of human retina, convex and concave lenses, and many other properties of light and astronomical events. Optic discoveries continued with the work of René Descartes, Robert Hooke, Christian Huygens and Isaac Newton whose book “Opticks“ was accepted as greatest achievement in light research of that time.

Advances in the optics continued with the work of countless other inventors, engineers, and physicists, like Thomas Young (interference, wave nature), James Clerk Maxwell (electromagnetic theory), Max Planck (blackbody radiation), Albert Einstein (photoelectric effect), Niels Bohr (emission of energy by atoms, basis of quantum optics and quantum mechanics), Paul Dirac (quantum field theory) and others.