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A Peek into the Interesting History of Eye Exams

Jamie Mendiola

Written By:

Jamie Mendiola

Updated: 18 April 2024 •  
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Back in ancient times, people would test their vision by looking at the stars. While it sounds like something that came straight out of a movie, it’s true.
 
Fast forward to today, you no longer have to look up at the sky to know whether you can see clearly or not. Instead, you can simply get eye exams at your local clinic or even online, and get accurate results a few minutes later.
 
From looking at the stars to reading eye charts, we’ve certainly come a long way. Let’s take a trip down memory lane and explore the vast history of eye exams.
 

Eye exams started with the stars

looking at stars eye exam

Looking for the Big Dipper used to be an eye exam.

 
People in 2000 BC didn’t have the optical equipment we enjoy now, but they had the stars in the sky. And that’s all they needed to do the Arab eye test.
 
To test their eyes, they simply had to look up at the night sky and identify the constellations.
 
If they could clearly see the Big Dipper, or its little handle with the two stars, Mizar and Alcor, it was good enough for them to be a sharp-eyed hunter back in the old days.
 

Next came Küchler’s ‘no cheating’ visual charts

kuechler eye chart

One of Kuechler eye charts. Source: Precision Vision

 
By 1843, scientists needed something more accurate than stargazing. With that, Heinrich Küchler from Darmstadt, Germany, created the world’s first eye exam chart.
 
Similarly to how we do it today, patients would sit and read out the charts. The optician would then judge how clear their vision was based on the readings.
 
Heinrich even made three different versions of this chart, in order to keep people from memorizing the charts and cheating.
 

The invention of the ophthalmoscope

modern doctors uses ophthalmoscope

The ophthalmoscope remains in use by eye doctors today.

 
Another German invention that changed the landscape of eye exams is the ophthalmoscope. Created by Hermann Von Helmholtz in 1851, this device is still used by eye doctors to this day. like a little flashlight for your pupils.
 
By beaming a light through your pupil, opticians are able to check the health of your retinas. From here, they can detect whether you have any signs of hypertension, diabetes, endocarditis, and disseminated candidemia. Pretty handy for an eye flashlight!
 

The man who changed eye exams for good: Herman Snellen

classic snellen eye chart

The classic eye chart you see in every optical clinic.

 
A lot of great minds have contributed to the evolution of eye exams. However, no one has arguably made a bigger and more lasting impact than Herman Snellen, a Dutch ophthalmologist.
 
In 1862, he became known for the iconic Snellen eye chart. If you don’t know what it is, think of a printed row of letters and numbers on a white background, with each row getting smaller in font size.
 
How did it become so popular? Well, back then eye charts would show letters, images, and a lot of confusing symbols. It was all customized yet confusing, and resulted in inconsistencies in results.
 
But once Snellen’s chart came out, everyone could go to any eye doctor and get the same exam. It was clean, modern, and standardized.
 
This little invention is also how the phrase “20/20 vision” originated. If you can read the smallest row of letters on the Snellen chart without corrective aid, you can proudly declare that you have 20/20 vision.
 
Snellen also made a child-friendly version called the “Tumbling E” eye chart. In this format, the patient could use their fingers to point the direction in which the “E” is pointing on the chart.
 

More eye-popping milestones

The first pair of eyeglasses in the world

 
first eyeglasses in the world

Historic eyeglasses with a Harry Potter vibe. Source: Twitter

 
When Marco Polo visited China in 1271 AD, he saw the first pair of eyeglasses ever, worn by an old Chinese man. From there, eyeglasses were introduced to countries like Italy and the USA, and rapidly evolved into a global trend, reaching countries like Italy and the USA.
 
Scientists like Johannes Kepler and Christoph Scheiner also experimented with lenses, prisms, and mirrors. Their scientific notes led Benjamin Franklin (yes, the Founding Father of the United States) to invent the first pair of bifocal lenses in 1784.
 

The grand opening of America’s first optical shop

 
america first optical shop plaque

A plaque celebrating McAllister’s optical legacy. Source: Opticians Association of America

 
Business was booming in America in 1796, and John McAllister wanted a slice of the pie. This led to him opening the first optical shop in the USA, which was located in Philadelphia. They offered services like eye care and prescription glasses.
 
The McAllisters kept the business in the family for five generations, creating custom glasses for political icons like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson along the way.
 

4 types of eye exams you can get today

1. Glaucoma tests

 
eye exams for glaucoma testing

Testing for glaucoma can mean taking four different eye exams.

 
If you want to check for glaucoma, expect these eye exams:
 

  • Eye pressure test to gauge the pressure inside your eye.
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  • Gonioscopy to see what type of glaucoma you may have.
  •  

  • Visual field test to look for spots in your vision.
  •  

  • Optic nerve assessment to inspect if your optic nerve, which is connected to the brain, is still okay.

 

2. Pinhole visual acuity test

 
pinhole visual acuity test

An eye exam isn’t complete without one of these tools.

 
In this eye exam, the optician will use a pinhole occluder. This tool covers one or both of your eyes, while you read the eye chart from a few meters away.
 
The pinhole visual acuity test can diagnose nearsightedness, farsightedness, astigmatism, and other eye disorders. If you want a complete breakdown of how it works, check out our full guide to visual acuity tests.
 

3. Simplified eye tests for children

 
simplified eye tests for kids

Even children aren’t exempted from getting an eye exam.

 
Here’s what you can expect from child-friendly eye tests:
 

  • For newborn babies, an eye doctor will do the red reflex and pupil reflex tests. These exams will check how responsive the baby’s eyes are.
  •  

  • Babies and young children will also be tested on how well they pay attention to visual objects, especially since they can’t speak yet.
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  • From the age of 3 and up, the eye doctor will check for visual acuity and color blindness using an eye chart.

 

4. Intraocular pressure test

 
intraocular pressure test

Intraocular pressure might not be obvious at first, until you get an eye exam.

 
Have you ever felt like your eyes are swelling and in pain? You might need to check for intraocular pressure then.
 
In this type of exam, the doctor will get you some numbing eye drops, then carefully check your eyeballs with the flat tip of a tonometer. In layman terms, it will be like seeing if a balloon has too much or not enough air.
 
If left ignored, this condition can lead to glaucoma, cataracts, and other eye disorders. So, make sure to voice all and any concerns you have during the checkup, so you can get the best possible diagnosis and treatment.
 
Nowadays, it’s also easy to get prescription glasses online after getting your prescription. You can select, customize, and even try on the glasses you want online.
 

Eye exams have come a long way!

With all the leaps that scientists and inventors have made in the field of eye care, the least we can do to honor them is by getting our eyes checked regularly.
 
If you get a prescription or an updated one, feel free to browse our wide selection of frames and glasses to change up your look!

Jamie Mendiola
Jamie is a writer and non-profit volunteer advocating for mental health. When not typing up a storm at work, you'll find her binge-watching Netflix or meditating like Yoda.