An eye exam got me wondering about how things were designed and developed before the computer age. The office I visit has all the latest medical equipment — an entire room of devices to check the health of the eyeball and optic nerve endings. Yet once those checks are completed the patient sits in a chair and looks at letters projected on a wall through a series of lenses while being quizzed about which combination works best.
This was a bit disappointing, and yet reassuring too. After 56 years of wearing “spectacles” I know “the drill” — i.e., strive to give the “right” answer and wonder why someone has not invented a computerized device to zero in on the optimum prescription. We have grown used to technology making life easier, but occasionally there does not seem to be a quick solution.
Those optical refractors have been in common use for almost 100 years, following a development period of another century. The frames we take for granted took hundreds of years of tinkering too. Imagine just how world-changing it was for those with failing or aging eyes to slip a pair of corrective lenses over their ears and be able to see and work once again. You couldn’t get much done trying to hold a monocle between your eyebrow and cheek, or to hold lenses in place with a ribbon tied around your head.
Of course, just getting a piece of strong yet flexible chunk of wire big enough to hold those lenses was a challenge until relatively recently. Advances in other technologies were needed to set the conditions for the “invention” of something as simple as eyeglass frames.
The computer control of machine tools could never have happened without the demand for general purpose computers with operator friendly interfaces. The first “numerical control” pre-dates computers but involved using calculating machines from the bookkeeping department. I have posted an account of that “event” before and consider knowing one of people involved to be a highpoint in my life. Had John Parsons been satisfied with making helicopter blades by the accepted but unreliable method, we might have had to wait many years for the confluence of need, opportunity, and insight.