Joshua Silver, shortlisted for an EU award, hopes to supply children in the developing world with 200 million pairs of self-adjusting glasses.

Dan Gould
  • 23 may 2011

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This article titled “British inventor’s spectacles revolution for Africa” was written by Robin McKie, for The Observer on Saturday 21st May 2011 23.06 UTC

A British atomic physicist is liaising with the World Bank on a revolutionary project to distribute spectacles to 200 million children in developing countries. Users will be able to adjust the glasses to their own personal prescription without help from an optician.

“All users have to do is look at a reading chart and adjust the glasses until they can see letters clearly,” said Professor Joshua Silver, who was last week shortlisted for a 2011 European inventor award at a ceremony in Budapest. “Glasses like these are perfect for use in the third world. We can send them to schools where teachers can direct pupils to set their spectacles to suit each one’s vision. It is as simple as that.”

Silver estimates that more than a billion adults in developing nations have poor eyesight. This seriously limits their education and employment prospects. He is now working with the World Bank and the Dow Corning Corporation – which makes the silicone materials used in his revolutionary glasses – to supply 200 million pairs of self-adjusting spectacles to schoolchildren in Africa and Asia. Ultimately, he hopes a billion pairs of the glasses will be made.

The scientist’s work was highlighted by the European Patent Office and the European Union at a joint ceremony in Budapest as an example of the work that European scientists should be undertaking. Fourteen other projects – from new biofuel furnaces to cheap water-purification devices – were also on display.

The European patent system is undergoing a radical restructuring in a bid to make it as competitive as those in the US and other countries. The 15 inventions were selected to show not just the economic benefits of good invention and patenting, but to demonstrate that society can gain from an innovation that is properly protected by a good patent.

“One of the EU’s key duties is establishing the right framework to ensure the long-term innovative capacity of inventive enterprises,” said the EU’s internal market and services commissioner, Michel Barnier. “The EU patent will be a clear step in that direction.”

Of the EU’s 27 states, 25 have agreed to a common approach to patenting. Only Spain and Italy are holding out, because the new patents will be written only in English, German and French.

At the Budapest ceremony, Silver revealed that he began working on his revolutionary glasses – which are covered by patents – as a hobby more than 20 years ago, while he was relaxing from his daytime job as a professor of physics at Oxford University. “I was curious. I did it for fun,” said Silver, who is now director of the Oxford-based Centre for Vision in the Developing World.

What Silver created was ingenious and, like most great inventions, amazingly simple: low-cost glasses that can be tuned by the wearer. His spectacles have “adaptive lenses”, which consist of two thin membranes separated by silicone gel. The wearer simply looks at an eye chart and pumps in more or less fluid to change the curvature of the lens, which adjusts the prescription.

“It is incredibly easy. You don’t need an optician, just a little bit of basic instruction,” said Silver. “Our tests – which have ranged from trials with pupils in rural schools in China to inner-city schools in Boston – have found that more than 95% of adolescents can handle these glasses quite easily and set their own prescription without problem.

“We call this process self-refraction, and it offers enormous potential for use in the developing world. We have already supplied 40,000 of these glasses to individuals in 20 countries.”

Silver’s spectacles have two disadvantages, however. They cost around £15 a pair to make. “We have to get that cost down if we want to get these in numbers to children in Africa or Asia,” said Silver. “We are working on that, and I expect we’ll get the price down to around £1 a pair. At that cost, the plan to supply 200 million glasses becomes practicable.”

Silver also acknowledges that his glasses – which have thick, round rims – are not particularly attractive. “If we want teenagers to wear them, we will have to make them less obtrusive and more stylish. In essence, we want to make them look just like standard glasses. I am very hopeful we will succeed.” © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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