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Conversation with Bernard Maitenaz, Inventor of the Progressive Lens

By Essilor Canada

At the end of the eighteenth century, the first visual correction of presbyopia makes its appearance: a single pair of glasses that allows its wearer to see near and far. As early as 1784, Benjamin Franklin popularizes the use of bifocal lenses. Time goes by, but the product evolves very little. In 1950, presbyopes are still wearing bifocal lenses that divide the field of vision in two parts.

Shortly thereafter, a young French engineer revolutionized the world of presbyopes by creating a lens that allows them to see at any distance without interruption. Bernard Maitenaz, inventor of the progressive lens, answers our questions:

How did the idea of progressive lenses come to you?

I was fortunate to study at the École Supérieure d'Optique, where I was taught that the eye was a magnificent organ. As a matter of fact, we can see at all distances in a continuous manner, and we have the capacity to see in 3D. As the eye ages and doesn’t adjust enough anymore, the only solution we found was to put a bifocal lens in front of it. You know the glasses with a porthole on the front; a small window that breaks the image. It makes no sense.

I was in my twenties and full of enthusiasm. I thought to myself, there has to be a better solution. As an Optics and Mechanics engineer, I knew I could calculate progressive surfaces, and draw machines to produce them and so it became my project.

Were you aware from the beginning that you were revolutionizing the world of ophthalmic optics?

Yes and no, but that was really not my goal. The objective was to achieve what I had imagined: a lens with power that varies progressively and allows compensating for this adjustment that disappears; this in a more physiological manner than with bifocal lenses, which seemed rather brutal to me… I imagined a lens that would correct the distance vision and the near vision in a continuous way, without breaking the image.

You have achieved your goal and now the majority of presbyopes wear progressive lenses. Tell us a little about the development of your invention, which I believe continues to improve.

It took 8 years to develop the first Varilux, which was launched in 1959. We continued our work and in 1972, we introduced the Varilux 2, a fully aspheric lens which provided a significantly higher visual comfort and which was adopted by presbyopes worldwide. From that moment on, the means for measuring and calculations no longer allowed to choose the best between two formulas. The final word came from the wearers, and it was with wearers’ tests that progress could happen. The dioptric loop method* was formalized, and it allowed us to collect feedback from wearers, to develop new calculations as well as new products, to test them and so on and thanks to an endless loop, to make continuous progress.

Since then, 7 generations of Varilux have followed, continually improving, approaching a more and more natural vision. Today, the Varilux S series boasts the latest technological and scientific progress. One can even imagine that in the near future, we could produce an active, smart lens, with a design that would change in real time, adapting to all situations of everyday life.

* now called Live Optics