Clear as glass

Glass-making is an ancient art, originally developed in the Middle East. Its secrets have been lost, re-discovered at different times and in different processes, and eventually spread around the world. The magnifying properties of glass were obvious and often remarked upon.

Modern lenses evolved from reading stones — rock crystal, for example, that was shaped into magnifiers, the first step toward creating instruments that would make the minute world visible.

Reading stone

Reading stone

The scientist and mathematician Abu Ali Hasan Ibn Al-Haitham, also known as Alhazen, "the father of modern optics," working in 11th-century Spain, described many of the properties of light, including refraction and color, as well as the magnifying properties of  lenses.

Some talented Italian made the first eyeglasses in Europe, for far-sightedness only, sometime in the 13th century. Nicholas Cusanus, a brilliant German cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, is credited with making the first eyeglasses for myopia, in 1451.

In 1604, Johannes Kepler, the great German mathematician, astronomer and inventor, published Optics, an astonishing treatise that covered the nature and action of light, as well as the mechanics of sight. Optics became part of the bedrock of physics.

In 1611, Kepler improved on Galileo's telescope by replacing its concave eyepiece with a convex one. (Candidates abound for the honor of inventing the telescope, around 1600.)

Incidentally, Kepler's mother, Katharina, was accused of witchcraft in 1615, when she was about 70. He handled her defense himself, eventually winning her acquittal. Katharina Kepler reportedly had played a part in her son's lifelong love affair with the heavens: When he was six years old, she took him to "a high place" so he could see the spectacle of the Great Comet of 1577 in the night sky.

Image from Zeiss Optical Museum

A “monstrous” birth

Having a baby with a birth defect could get you killed in colonial America, and attending such a birth as a midwife was also perilous.

Anne Hutchinson, the subject of the previous post, was already in serious trouble in Puritan Boston for her unorthodox ideas when she was summoned along with another midwife, Jane Hawkins, to the childbed of her friend, Mary Dyer, who had remained loyal to Anne. On that day in October of 1637, Mary bore a deformed, stillborn baby girl.

The birth of a "monster," as such a child was called in colonial America, was seen as a sign of God's disfavor, at the very least. The charge that the mother and her attendants had been consorting with the devil was always possible, and the penalty for witchcraft could be death.

Anne asked her old minister for help -- John Cotton, who had sided with the religious authorities against her. Summoning some of his old friendship for her, he advised the secret burial of the dead infant.

However, in March of 1638, when Anne was excommunicated and sent from the congregation, Mary got up and followed her. Someone at the emotional scene, perhaps a fourth woman who had been present at the birth, cried out that Mary had borne a monster. Governor John Winthrop's interest was piqued.

Winthrop interrogated Cotton, who confessed his role in covering up the birth. Winthrop had the child exhumed.

In his journal, the governor reported that the dead infant had, among other features, "four horns, hard and sharp," two mouths, and three claws per foot where her toes should have been.

The birth was, Winthrop declared, evidence of  "the Lord declaring his detestation of their monstrous errors." By this time, however, Anne and her followers, including the Dyers, were safe in Rhode Island.

In 1660, long after Anne's death, Mary Dyer was hanged on Boston Common for the crime of having become a Quaker. She had come back from Rhode Island knowing she would likely be executed, to strike a blow for religious freedom.