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Innovation in the Eye of the Beholder: Optical Breakthroughs

Innovation in the Eye of the Beholder: Optical Breakthroughs MIND(s that filled) THE GAP(s) [IV]


The commonplace objects that we surround ourselves with are just as indispensable for our everyday businesses as they are, individually and collectively, piecemeal retellings of different parts of our civilization and the progressive attempts by mankind to better answer its ever-growing needs. As Jose Luis Borges once put it, many of our inventions are extensions of ourselves: “the microscope, the telescope, are extensions of [man’s] sight; the telephone is the extension of his voice; (...) the book is an extension of memory and imagination”. These extensions have enabled us to better master our environment and enrich our lives.

In this article, we will take a look at one such invention that changed our “perspective” of the world both literally and figurately: lenses.

First created in Europe some 400 years ago, the now familiar lens allowed us to see the stars and planets in our Solar System through the eyes of Galileo Galilei. Since then, lenses have been used in a very wide and diverse range of fields, from lab research and space suits to industrial equipment as well as everyday life, in eyeglasses of all shapes and styles.

Let us thus have a look at how lenses changed our… “view” of the world. The two optical inventions we will talk about have in common one more interesting thing: the human passion for outer space.


From Earth to the Galaxy

The telescope and the new scale of human sight


Stelian-Gabriel VOICU 

What could link the Earth and the galaxy, if not the object that allows us to view the mysteries and phenomena of outer space?

The telescope is certainly one of humankind’s most important achievements. The ordinary device that made far away things look near gave observers and scientists a new and beneficial perspective. Technically speaking, a telescope is an optical instrument that makes distant objects appear magnified by using an arrangement of lenses or curved mirrors and lenses, or various devices used to observe distant objects by their emission, absorption, or reflection of electromagnetic radiation. In addition, these lenses collect rays of light and focus them resulting in a magnified image. 

The real creator 

But who invented the telescope? The answer is actually quite controversial. It is a common belief that Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei invented the telescope, but this is not necessarily true. Back in the 16th century, it was inevitable that someone would eventually happen upon what can be done with two lenses since glassmaking and lens-grinding techniques had improved in the late 1500s. The originator of this action was a Dutch eyeglass maker named Hans Lippershey (or Lipperhey). In 1608, Lippershey had a device that could magnify objects three times. His telescope had a concave eyepiece aligned with a convex objective lens. One story goes that he got the idea for his design after observing two children in his shop holding up two lenses that made a distant weather vane appear closer. The name “telescope” was not used until three years later and he referred to his design as a “Dutch perspective glass”, which he used for “seeing things far away as if they were nearby”. The telescope in the Netherlands was like the magnet in China, an object of pure curiosity. 

Galileo Galilei – a copycat?! 

In 1609, Galileo Galilei learned that a Dutchman had made an optical instrument which magnified images of objects. After that, he was so impressed that he immediately guessed its construction, so he made a copy of the telescope the following day. Six days had passed and he presented his device to the Venetian Senate. The new device was able to magnify the diameter of objects thirty times. In addition, the Senate awarded him a lifelong position as lecturer at the University of Padua and doubled his salary, according to Stillman Drake in his book “Galileo at Work: His Scientific Biography”. On the 21st of August 1609, he climbed the bell tower of the Patriarchal Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mark surrounded by a group of noblemen and showed them the power of the telescope. Altough Galileo’s telescope was not the best at that time, it did give him the opportunity to make many fascinating discoveries. In fact, these discoveries were so amazing that they shocked the scientists and offended the members of the Catholic Church. They were convinced that what could be seen with the telescope was “The Devil’s hand”. 

The benefits of the innovation 

After the invention of the telescope, Galileo still continued his lunar observation. In the same year (1609), while watching the Moon with the telescope, Galileo observed that the progressions of light after the new moon were irregular, with sudden traces of light being emitted successively from the part still obscured. Then, he immediately understood that the Moon was similar to our globe and thus covered with valleys and mountains even higher than ours. Galileo’s discoveries were presented in a brochure entitled “The messenger of the stars”, published in 1610 in Venice. This brochure also made him famous.

The next discovery was about the Milky Way, which to him seemed to consist in a vast quantity of very small stars; he counted more than forty of them in the single group of the Pleiades, and more than five hundred in the constellation Orion. After thee years of work, he introduced the theory on satellites, and, in the beginning of 1613, he dared to predict all their configurations during two consecutive months. Moreover, Galileo used his telescope to create a graphic representation of the craters from the surface of the Moon. When he started to study the planets, he was amazed by what he saw. He observed that Saturn has four satellites similar to the Moon. Also, he noticed some odd formations belonging to Saturn in the shape of a pair of ears. Unfortunately, he was not able to realize that those were in fact “the Rings of Saturn”.

What remains after centuries is the fact that Galilei managed to change the world’s perspective about the outer space. He discovered numerous fascinating facts about the sky, challenging old ideas and laying the foundation of a new way of thinking about the universe we live in. 

The telescope nowadays 

Following hundreds of years of constant evolution, the telescope has reached its most modern stage. At this moment, it is an inexpensive tool and also very easy to find. In comparison with the times when the telescope was truly a revolutionary discovery, today the telescope is viewed as a commonplace object. Depending on the age category, it can serve different purposes. For example, it can be entertaining for children, interesting for adults, out of the ordinary, but it can also be very useful for scientists. Moreover, this economic good has undergone changes as technology continued to improve significantly. Once a singular, unique invention, over the years it has spawned countless types of telescopes such as: Optical telescopes, Radiotelescopes, Infrared telescopes, Ultraviolet telescopes, X-ray telescopes or Gamma-ray telescopes. 


Steven Johnson (2010), “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation”, Riverhead Books.

James D. Brophy & Henry Paolucci (1962), “The achievement of Galielo”, Griffon House Publications.

Gerry Bailey and Karen Foster (2008), “Galileo’s Telescope”, Crabtree Publishing Company.

“Who invented the telescope?”, by Lauren Cox, 2017 (

“Did Galileo invent the telescope?”, by Jonathan O’Callaghan, 2018 (


Look Sharp While Seeing Sharp

Scratch-resistant and UV-reflecting lenses


Georgiana Denisa OAE


Can you imagine going out on a really sunny day without your sunglasses? Most likely your first thought would be a strong “no”. But did your mind wander to the times before such glasses even existed? What were people wearing to protect themselves from the sun? The answer to these questions might come across as shocking. 

Scratch-Resistant Lenses 

The idea came from the field of engineering; aerospace, to be more specific. Before 1983, lenses that were scratch-resistant and also UV-reflecting did not exist. The only glasses people could use were made out of glass. It may not seem like such a bad thing, but the main problem was that they could break into a million pieces, which would most likely hurt the eye and damage eyesight, possibly leading to blindness. Upon noticing this, the Food and Drug Administration from the United States decreed that all glasses must be scratch-resistant. Thus, manufacturers were faced with the struggle of finding a material with which to replace the glass. They soon began to make glasses with lenses out of plastic. But they still did not meet the regulation as they still were not resistant to scratches, even though they had a lot of advantages such as: “lower manufacturing costs, excellent optics, better absorption of ultraviolet radiation and being lightweight” (Space Foundation).

While working on a spacecraft water purification system, NASA’s Dr. Ted Wydeven from the Ames Research Center wanted to alter a membrane during the purification process. In order to do that, he used “an electric discharge of an organic vapor and coated a filter with a thin plastic film” (Space Foundation). He managed to create a hard surface that was also good at resisting scratches. The research went further as the people at NASA developed a special coating for the helmets and visors of the astronaut suits, as well as other plastic surfaces of the space equipment.

The first to get their hands on the technology for consumer products was the company Foster Grant, an American eyewear and sunglasses company founded in 1929 by Sam Foster. The company managed to get a license from NASA in 1983 to use their coating formula, as they have researched for over 10 years trying to find a filter for the plastic lenses. They combined their own technology together with NASA’s and created a lens that would last ten times longer than the most commonly used plastic ones. Nowadays, most lenses used in the manufacturing of any types of glasses are made of plastic. 

UV-Reflecting Lenses 

However, NASA was not involved only in developing scratch-resistant lenses, but also UV-reflecting or sunlight-filtering ones. The research for these was carried out in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory by two scientists: James B. Stephens and Dr. Charles G. Miller. The purpose of the endeavor was to create protective eyewear for people who worked in the industrial welding field to shield them from the harmful light and radiation. What they found interesting in their previous analysis was how, for example, the eyes of hawks and eagles contain “unique oil droplets” that protect them from intensely radiated light rays, but still letting “vision-enhancing light rays” go through. They managed to combine these concepts and make a filtering technology using “light-filtering dyes and tiny particles of zinc oxide” (Spinoff NASA). With this in hand, they went on to manufacture a transparent welding curtain technology which protects the human eye from being affected by the harmful ultraviolet and blue light.

Over time, the two scientists became interested in developing protective eyewear. They designed sunglasses for different types of environments which eventually led to the creation of a company. SunTiger Inc. was founded in Calabasas, California and offered highly protective sunglasses. The company is now known by the name of Eagle Eyes Optics and has created various styles of sunglasses that did not fail the test of time and style. They have also brought awareness to diminishing and deteriorated eyesight and decided to educate the public on the topic. The company is constantly launching more models designed for different vision needs.

The history of sunglasses and its additions is probably not so well-known, but it is definitely an interesting one. From pure pieces of glass to UV-filtering technology, NASA played the most important role in making what sunglasses are now. We may not be aware of it, but they made possible other objects which we may use on a daily basis, while overlooking their origin 





The Romanian-American Foundation for the Promotion of Education and Culture (RAFPEC)
Amfiteatru Economic

OEconomica No. 1, 2016