Monday, January 25, 2010

Big Ideas to Save The World

Excerpted from The Guardian:

Inventor's 2020 vision: to help 1bn of the world's poorest see better.
Professor pioneers DIY adjustable glasses that do not need an optician.

A Zulu man wearing adaptive glasses. (photo by Michael Lewis)

It was a chance conversation on March 23 1985 ("in the afternoon, as I recall") that first started Josh Silver on his quest to make the world's poor see. A professor of physics at Oxford University, Silver was idly discussing optical lenses with a colleague, wondering whether they might be adjusted without the need for expensive specialist equipment, when the lightbulb of inspiration first flickered above his head.
What if it were possible, he thought, to make a pair of glasses which, instead of requiring an optician, could be "tuned" by the wearer to correct his or her own vision? Might it be possible to bring affordable spectacles to millions who would never otherwise have them?

More than two decades after posing that question, Silver now feels he has the answer. The British inventor has embarked on a quest that is breathtakingly ambitious, but which he insists is achievable - to offer glasses to a billion of the world's poorest people by 2020.

If the scale of his ambition is dazzling, at the heart of his plan is an invention which is engagingly simple.

Silver has devised a pair of glasses which rely on the principle that the fatter a lens the more powerful it becomes. Inside the device's tough plastic lenses are two clear circular sacs filled with fluid, each of which is connected to a small syringe attached to either arm of the spectacles.

The wearer adjusts a dial on the syringe to add or reduce amount of fluid in the membrane, thus changing the power of the lens. When the wearer is happy with the strength of each lens the membrane is sealed by twisting a small screw, and the syringes removed. The principle is so simple, the team has discovered, that with very little guidance people are perfectly capable of creating glasses to their own prescription.

Silver calls his flash of insight a "tremendous glimpse of the obvious" - namely that opticians weren't necessary to provide glasses.

The implications of bringing glasses within the reach of poor communities are enormous, says the scientist. Literacy rates improve hugely, fishermen are able to mend their nets, women to weave clothing. During an early field trial, funded by the British government, in Ghana, Silver met a man called Henry Adjei-Mensah, whose sight had deteriorated with age, as all human sight does, and who had been forced to retire as a tailor because he could no longer see to thread the needle of his sewing machine. "So he retires. He was about 35. He could have worked for at least another 20 years. We put these specs on him, and he smiled, and threaded his needle, and sped up with this sewing machine. He can work now. He can see."


  1. I think this is a great adaptation useful for the folks mentioned here. I wonder though, if there are long term affects (headaches, cataracts, etc) if this was to be mainstreamed? Self-medicating is generally not a good a idea, and I wonder if this would fall under the same umbrella, over time?

  2. Fantastic stuff, and frames like that would make me look very intelligent too.

  3. this is a fantastic story! wonderful!

    and jen jen, these people have nothing to lose: this guy had lost his livelihood, if he gains even 5 more working years he has gained five years

  4. I am a huge fan of creative solutions. Great job Dr. Silver!

  5. Dr. Silver deserves a lot of credit. I hope he gets it, so he can keep helping others.

  6. There are so many things in this world that could be better if we only let individuals help find the solutions.

  7. Oh Dex. Haven't forgotten my mime. Next post.

  8. I want a pair. Seriously this using four pairs of glasses depending on whats going on with my eye is a pain in the ass.

  9. I like good news - thanks for sharing this.

  10. This is great. Hope the corporate powers that be don't get involved.

    What I really like about this idea (besides the simplicity), is the feeling that he did it to help others, not for the God almighty dollar. Best idea I've heard in many a year.

  11. Awesome! I know more often than not I say a few words of gratitude when I put my contacts in. Life would be very different if it weren't for corrective lenses.

  12. This is a marvellous concept and even if there are possible flaws, I can't help thinking they're drowned out by the benefits.

  13. Human ingenuity, if given the chance . . .


Sorry about the comment thingy folks. Too much spam.