07/30/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT
The thick cylinders protruding from the eyeglasses look like a Steve Martin party gag but they are sight for poor eyes. Developed by a New York optometrist, William Feinbloom, the oddball attachments—called camera lenses—are designed for patients who cannot focus even with the strongest prescription specs.
So far some 800 legally and partially blind persons have been fitted with Feinbloom's $1,500-to-$2,500 lenses at the Pennsylvania College of Optometry in Philadelphia. Using them can improve two percent normal vision (20/1200) to as high as 80 percent (20/25). "With two percent, you could barely count my fingers three feet in front of your face," exults Feinbloom. "With 80, you could read the bumper sticker on the car ahead of you."
Having researched subnormal vision for almost half a century, the 75-year-old lens grinder produced 46 different special attachments before perfecting the new camera prescription last year. Each lens contains nine elements of glass and two tiny prisms, giving it the viewing range of an eight-power telescope. "Anything stronger at that size," says Feinbloom of the four-ounce, one-and-three-quarter-inch lens, "and you would lose your field of vision—and get a terrific headache."
The Brooklyn-born Feinbloom was raised on eye charts by his optometrist father and graduated himself from Columbia University. In 1931, while diagnosing an elderly near-blind man, Feinbloom found ordinary lenses useless and decided to specialize in the abnormalities of the poorly sighted. A year later, adapting a pair of telescopic glasses invented in Germany, he designed a lens to suit his patient. Ecstatic, the old man journeyed to Rome to inform Pius XI of his newfound vision, and the Pope blessed Feinbloom's lens. Today the spry optometrist (who lives with his wife, Evelyn, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.) estimates there are 1.5 million low-vision Americans who could benefit from a telescopic lens. Even without a religious experience, he says, "The gift of sight is a miracle not to be missed."