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Adjustable spectacles from an Oxford physics professor – £6 a pair and they last a lifetime

Today I visited my mother, and maybe I got my enthusiasm for Isn’t Capitalism Great? stories from her, because like me she thinks that good news is important. And she told me of some very good news that was in last weekend’s Independent On Sunday. I made a copy of the cutting.

An Oxford physics professor is selling 10 million pairs of revolutionary new spectacles to Africa which enable the users to wear them for a lifetime without ever going to an optician.

The professor is a man called Joshua Silver, and the glasses he has devised are as remarkable an invention as I have ever heard about.

With normal glasses the lenses are made of solid glass. But Professor Silver’s lenses are filled with liquid (silicon oil), and you can alter the focus of these lenses by pumping liquid into or out of them so that they expand or contract. You fiddle about with them until they are just right for you. And if your eyesight changes, which for most people means your eyesight getting worse, you can alter them, just by twiddling a couple of knobs on the side of the glasses. You only ever need one pair of glasses in your entire life, and you never need visit an optician in your entire life.

None of this is now a particularly big deal in somewhere like London SW1 or New York City (although it quite soon may become important there as well), but in Africa, for millions upon millions who are now blurry-eyed losers, this is the chance to make visual sense of your world for the first time in your blighted life. Africa just doesn’t have opticians on every street corner the way rich countries do. Many Africans with bad eyesight never even learn to read, for this one reason. Educated people who used to have good eyesight but don’t any more now have to retire early. All that could now be about to end.

Through a deal with the WHO and the World Bank, Prof Silver plans to sell up to 400,000 adaptive glasses in Ghana with another edeal for 9.3 million pairs in South Africa also in the pipeline. The glasses are sold at about £6 through his company Adaptive Eyecare, based in Oxford, but cost less than that to make. With just 50 opticians in Ghana out of a population of almost 20 million, glasses that last a lifetime will prove a boon.

“It would take on average about 200 years to be seen by an optomotrist in Ghana,” explained Prof Silver. “But adaptive glasses obviate the need for a trip at all.”

Professor Silver’s story is like something out of Samuel Smiles’ Self Help.

The professor began work on his invention 17 years ago – although the technique of using liquid in lenses dates back to the 18th century. “When I first started working with variable power lenses, it was simply to see if they could be made,” he said. “Then I realised that if I could build something with the potential to help millions of people, I ought to just got out and give it a go.” …

Trials which have been under way in Ghana since 1996 have already proved successful. …

This man is a true do-gooder. No irony. No sense whatever that he might be wasting his time, or doing more harm than good. He’s not bossing anyone around or telling them what’s good for them. He has simply grabbed hold of a huge problem, and what is more, a problem in a place where the whole idea of problem solving has come to seem almost futile, and he has solved it.

In the picture of him that the Independent printed, he looks a happy man. He deserves to be.

12 comments to Adjustable spectacles from an Oxford physics professor – £6 a pair and they last a lifetime

  • Kevin Connors

    But, considering that it’s the Independent, isn’t a grain of salt in order?

  • Walter E. Wallis

    Every once in a while, we see an illustration of the value of applied science. Professor Silver deserves a standing ovation.

  • Terry Egan

    I wonder how long it will be before Prof. Silvers invention will be made illegal in the more developed (pronounced ‘over-lawyered’) countries. The physicans unions don’t care for ‘dat debbil competition’ if it cuts into their compensation.

  • I second Terry Egan’s warning. A few years ago there was an admirable scheme whereby people gave away their old glasses to Africa. The glasses were sorted into necessarily approximate categories of sight correction and distributed to those who needed them. A generous scheme, you would have thought. Not everyone did, though. Ah, the screams of outrage at this “second best” scheme – as if half a loaf were worse than no bread. (Or as if GM modified food were worse than no food at all, perhaps.)

    Still, this new liquid-lens does sound good. Here’s hoping it works as well as it deserves to. And that Prof Silver gets stupendously, ridiculously, famously rich and thus encourages others to seek their fortunes by helping the poor of the world get nice and useful stuff.

  • Grizzled Wrenchbender

    Hmmm… I saw references to this technology about ten years ago, but it seemed rather delicate- the flexible lens containing the oil was a very thin layer of glass, like the cover glass used on a microscope specimen.

    Maybe they’ve improved the method, but they still look like gomer goggles ;)

  • Tony

    I saw this outlined on a TV programme about a year ago, when the Prof was talking about commercial deals. Really glad that it’s working out for him and maybe 6 million people too.

    I wonder what other simple, sensible ideas could get off the ground if people take this as a cue. Let’s hope the Prof does get rich off this idea!

  • I just hope the doesn’t make a SPECTACLE of himself!

  • scarshapedstar

    Spectacular pun, James!

  • Dang! The power range only goes up (down?) to -6.00 dioptres. I’m slightly more nearsighted than that. Lasik is getting pretty cheap, though (cheap for an American, not a Ghanan).

  • Bill H

    Alan, you KNOW once this goes into full scale distribution, someone will find a way to get around the limited diopter range. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised to see versions with bi- and even trifocal
    lenses. Doctor, that is probably one of the coolest inventions of recent history. Congratulations on such a rare combination of brilliance, luck, and humility.

  • Sigivald

    A good idea, but there are two problems this doesn’t appear to solve:

    1) scratching of the lens surface; this is the main reason I need new glasses, not a change in vision.

    2) How well can these handle astigmatism? I imagine not as well as traditional lenses.

    Still, probably handy; glasses that are adjustable are better than the wrong rx, and glasses that don’t quite fit your astigmatic eyes are still better than none.

    Ah, progress.

  • zack mollusc

    Well done that man! Perhaps next he can turn his attention to cheap spectacles for the national health. If adjustable specs can be made for £6 just think how cheap fixed lenses could be made!