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85/2211 Glass eyes (set of 16) in a tin box, glass / aluminium / tin / wood / paint, by Rudolf Martin, Germany, 1903-1910. Click to enlarge.

Glass eyes in a tin box by Rudolf Martin

These eyes represent an early stage in the development of prosthetic eyes and add to the Museum's medical collection, in particular prosthetics.

Some people may have one or both eyes removed if they are damaged or diseased. Artificial eyes used to be made of glass and hand painted like these ones. In 2009 they are made of an acrylic material that is hand painted in fine detail, including the blood vessels.

The first known professional ocularists came out of Venice in the late 16th century. These early glass eyes were likely extremely uncomfortable, despite their beauty and relative realism, since, in order to make them shatterproof, they needed to be heavy. Regardless, they were highly sought after and Venetian glass eyes remained in demand until the 1800s'.

In 1835, German eyeball-makers finally created a lightweight, hollow glass eye following the invention of a vaguely eyeball-coloured form of glass called cryolite. The eyeball was painted with an iris. These eyes would become the standard for the next 100 years. In the 19th Century vulcanite was experimented with, with little success as was celluloid, however it deteriorated quickly in the socket.

The war years had a huge impact on the amount of people needing artificial eyes and a larger industry was born. Since the 1940s, artificial eyes have been made of various plastics, removing the safety hazard of having fragile glass in the eye socket.

Rudolf Martins work was appropriated (along with other anthropological tools) and used by the Nazis, to reinforce their view of a 'racially pure' Germany. Martin himself died in 1925, he used his energy to promote social welfare programmes, he wrote 'tolerance is the first step to inner freedom', Martin's wife was Jewish and survived the 'model' concentration camp Theresienstaatt.

Materials and technology available to people with a disability have changed since the nineteenth century as has society's attitudes.

Oetteking, Bruno. Rudolf Martin. American Anthropologist April, 1926 Vol. 28(2): 414-417
Schafft, Gretchen Engle From racism to genocide: anthropology in the Third Reich (p228)
www.artifical eyes.com.au/history

Anni Turnbull, curator design and society, 2009


Object No.


Object Statement

Glass eyes (set of 16) in a tin box, glass / aluminium / tin / wood / paint, by Rudolf Martin, Germany, 1903-1910

Physical Description

Spherical glass eyes with varying pupil sizes and colours including blue, hazel and brown. The glass eyes are housed within a tin box containing an insert with individual cut-outs for each eyeball. A MAAS-made wooden board with circular cut-outs protects the eyeballs from an aluminium cover with eye-lid shaped openings for each eyeball.


Lid of tin marked in gold lettering 'Augenfarben, TAFEL/NACH/Prof Dr Rud. Martin'.



34 mm


190 mm


140 mm



These 16 glass eyes and their surrounding were made by Swiss born Rudolf Martin (1864-1925).

''Martin was a social anthropologist, and initially a professor at the University of Zurich. He later resigned his position at the university and went to work in Paris, where wrote "System der Anthropologie und anthropologischen Bibliographie," which was a forerunner to his work Lehrbuch der Anthropologie. This manuscript was the first comprehensive study in physical anthropology, and remained a reference used by physical anthropologists for many years. He held the chair of anthropology at the University of Munich, until his death in 1925. Martin devoted the last period of his life to studying the effects of the war on the next generation''.(1)

Rudolf Martin developed a colour chart. First marketed in 1903 the Augenfarbentafel or eye colour chart was sold at cost to scientists and researchers (2). It is described as "a slotted aluminium board, in a portable locking black case, held 16 glass eyes progressively arranged in shades from dark brown to light blue, set in place with the surrounding forms of simulated eyelids and soft tissue".

Rudolf Martin's work was appropriated and used by the Nazis. Before Martin died in 1925, he used his energy to promote social welfare programmes. He is quoted as saying 'tolerance is the first step to inner freedom,' (3). Martin's wife was Jewish and survived the 'model' concentration camp, Theresienstaatt.

This example case of glass eyes has no lid or locking device

1 Oetteking, Bruno. Rudolf Martin. American Anthropologist April, 1926 Vol. 28(2): 414-417.
2. p137 colors 1800/1900/2000:signs of ethnic difference by Birgit Tautz
3. p228 From racisim to genocide: anthropology in the Third Reich By Gretchen Engle Schafft



According to Birgit Tautz in "Colours 1880/1900/2000: signs of Ethnic Difference" the eye colour table was based on the somatological studies of various racially defined population samples, comprising a number colour scale corresponding to the gradations in hue and intensity of the artificial irises. The individual person being assessed was positioned in daylight with the eye-colour board held up against his or her left cheek. The scientist stood 50 to 70 cm away and made visual judgement which was correlated to the numerical scale. The individual glass eyes were held in place on the board by four metal tongues. The artificial eyes could be removed for closer examination against the real eye.

The Museum bought these glass eyes at a Sotheby's auction in 1985.

Tautz, Birgit, "Colours 1880/1900/2000: Signs of Ethnic Difference", 2004, pp.137-8.


Credit Line

Purchased 1985

Acquisition Date

5 November 1985

Cite this Object


Glass eyes in a tin box by Rudolf Martin 2021, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 4 March 2021, <https://ma.as/38774>


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