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Making glass eyes

Published: 12 July 2021

Our collection includes many examples of artificial eyes. They are fascinating objects, making you think about the person who wore them. But have you ever thought about the many stages and processes needed to make a realistic and comfortable glass eye?

The Daily Herald Archive is a treasure trove of 20th-century photojournalism. It is organised into many sections of files, one of which is the vast collection titled ‘Industry’.

The photographs in the ‘Industry’ files represent almost every trade imaginable, from the manufacture of adhesives to wig making, highlighting many jobs and skills often not thought about.

The photographs that form the basis for this story, taken in 1943, concentrate on one highly skilled—and now largely obsolete—job: the creation of handmade glass eyes.

What is the Daily Herald Archive?

The Daily Herald was a British national newspaper published between 1912 and 1964. At one point, it was the top-selling newspaper in the world, with a monthly circulation of more than 2 million.

Every photograph and negative taken for the newspaper was stored in a picture library, categorised and filed for easy access should they ever be needed again. This amazing collection—comprising 3.5 million photographs, contact sheets and glass negatives—is the Daily Herald Archive, which we now care for at the National Science and Media Museum here in Bradford.

This story is based on a selection of images from the archive.

‘One of the most interesting yet least known of the Ministry’s activities...’

Following the Second World War, there was considerable demand for custom made prosthetics, and particularly for glass eyes.

The photographs in this series show Marjorie Chown and Connie Sayers making prosthetic glass eyes at the Optical Appliances Depot of the Ministry of Pensions.

The Ministry of Pensions was created in 1916 to give financial support to members of the armed forces and their families during the First World War. The Ministry also became responsible for the rehabilitation of servicemen injured during the war, which included the supply of artificial limbs.

A separate department, the Army Spectacle Depot, was established to provide servicemen with glasses. However, injuries sustained by soldiers led to an increasing need to supply glass eyes.

The photographs were taken by one of the Saidman brothers (there were two who worked as staff photographers for the Herald) accompanied an article published during the Second World War (1939–45).

Back of photo with clipping of article titled 'Glass Eyes' Science Museum Group © TopFoto/SMG Images
Back of photo with clipping of article titled ‘Glass Eyes’, dated 20 March 1943

At the time of the report, more than 15,000 individually made glass eyes had been supplied to those who had lost eyes during the war—both servicemen and civilians hurt during air raids.

Creating the spill

The first part of the process was making a tube of glass. The maker, or operator, would apply heat and draw off a portion called a ‘spill’.

The glass tube is subjected to heat and the operator draws off a portion called spill Science Museum Group © TopFoto/SMG Images
Photograph by Saidman, 1943

Marjorie Chown is shown using a blow-pipe to form a globe from the spill, all the while applying heat.

This globe would form the main part of the eye.

The spill subjected to heat throughout the entire process is now expertly ‘blown’ into a bulb Science Museum Group © TopFoto/SMG Images
Photograph by Saidman, 1943

Adding colour

The iris was expertly matched to the colour of the patient’s remaining eye using a combination of different coloured glass.

The pupil was added to the centre of the iris using black glass.

The special glass used for these processes was formerly imported from Germany, but once war broke out, it was no longer available. However, a German refugee knew of an American company that could supply the type of glass needed. At the time the article was written, a consignment of American glass had recently arrived in Britain, flown in on board a bomber plane.

A strip of coloured glass is heated and applied to the bulb—it is called the base colour and forms the pupil of the eye Science Museum Group © TopFoto/SMG Images
Photograph by Saidman, 1943

The iris was then covered with a layer of clear crystal glass. This represented the cornea and created a realistic depth of colour to the eye.

To give depth to the artificial eye a touch of crystal is added Science Museum Group © TopFoto/SMG Images
Photograph by Saidman, 1943

The different types of glass had to be made very carefully: they needed to expand and contract to the same degree as they were heated, shaped and cooled.

The article described the women making these eyes as ‘specially trained girls’, typical language for the time. Nevertheless, their skill and knowledge is clearly evident.

Marjorie Chown had been making glass eyes for seven years when she was photographed working at the Ministry.

Operator subjects the glass eye to further heat treatment Science Museum Group © TopFoto/SMG Images
Photograph by Saidman, 1943

Shaping and sizing the eye

After training in Manchester, the mainly female team, based in Northern England (we believe Liverpool), made artificial eyes for people throughout the UK.

Here, Miss Connie Sayers, who had been working in the department for four years, is pictured shaping the eye.

Glass eye is shaped to a pattern by an operator Science Museum Group © TopFoto/SMG Images
Photograph by Saidman, 1943

The spill was carefully manipulated using heat applied at precise pressures, ensuring the eye was the right shape and size for its intended wearer.

Once the operator was satisfied with the shape, the air would be drawn from the spill.

Shape and size can be as varied as colour, and are extremely important to ensure a comfortable fit. The report described how the Ministry was able to supply a glass eye for a baby injured during the Blitz, as well as an 80-year-old Chelsea Pensioner.

The operator is now satisfied with the shaping and draws the air from the spill Science Museum Group © TopFoto/SMG Images
Photograph by Saidman, 1943

The final stages

The glass eye was then severed from the spill. In the photograph below, other completed eyes are also visible in the background.

The glass eye is severed from the spill Science Museum Group © TopFoto/SMG Images
Photograph by Saidman, 1943

Fitting centres were located throughout Britain, offering individual support to each person.

At the time of the article, over 100 people were fitted with two replacement glass eyes. Though making an exact colour match was no longer possible, it was still important to the wearer to have a colour they were happy with.

The completed eye

Finally, the eye would be placed in a crucible containing hot wood ash and left to cool.

The glass eye is placed in a crucible containing hot wood ash and left to cool Science Museum Group © TopFoto/SMG Images
Photograph by Saidman, 1943

Artificial eyes today

The Ministry of Pensions has changed a lot since its formation in 1916, becoming a component of the British welfare state, which also includes the National Health Service. The NHS continues to supply artificial eyes, most of which are made at the National Artificial Eye Service in Blackpool.

Before antibiotics and increased health and safety regulations, such as protective eyewear in the workplace, accidents and infections accounted for most eye loss. Today, cancer and other serious illnesses are the most common ways in which a person may lose their eye.

Most modern prosthetic eyes are made from poly(methyl methacrylate), also known as PMMA or acrylic. The ‘moulded prosthesis’ is individually moulded to fit the empty eye socket and the ‘cosmetic shell’ which fits over the existing eye.

Moulded prosthetic eyes are fitted so precisely the muscles in the eye socket can move the artificial eye, giving an extremely natural appearance.

Some people still prefer glass to plastic prosthetic eyes. However, with just one traditional maker listed in the UK, glass eye making was added to the ‘Red List of Endangered Crafts’ by The Heritage Crafts Association in 2021.

Rows of glass eyes in a box Science Museum Group © TopFoto/SMG Images
Photograph by Saidman, 1943

Further reading