Ben Franklin’s bifocals – an invention

Reading’s review of the best documents in a recently released Library of Congress database of Franklin documents, the bifocals were the standout item to me. From a letter sent the winter of 1784 to his friend George Whatley we have this terrific sketch of the bifocal design.

Translated here into a more legible illustration.

In an earlier letter Whatley had also referred to the items as “YOUR invention of double spectacles”. While Franklin’s invention of the bifocal has been considered apocryphal by some historians, academic review of letters and other evidence so far supports the claim.

At the time Franklin had just returned to Philadelphia to find his way onto the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania and then appointed its President. Glasses were no newfound apparatus to the then-69 year old, who had advertised glasses for sale in his Pennsylvania Gazette as early as 1738. Franklin had moderate hyperopia and so would likely have needed them around that age, about 33.

Charles Wilson Peale’s 1785 portrait of Franklin feature him wearing bifocals.

Charles Wilson Peale 1785 portrait of Ben Franklin.

By 1788 Peale had his own pair. He would paint himself wearing bifocals some 20 years later, perhaps honoring Franklin who had died in 1790.

Charles Wilson Peale 1807 self-portrait.

Just one of the many great Franklin stories to tell… A very American invention!

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