The difference between the refractive indices of a transparent material for a specific blue light and a specific red light is known as the dispersion of the material. The usual choices of blue and red lights are the so-called “F” and “C” lines of hydrogen in the solar spectrum, named by Fraunhofer, with wavelengths 4861 and 6563 angstroms (the angstrom unit, abbreviated Å, is 10−8 centimetre), respectively. It is generally more significant, however, to compare the dispersion with the mean refractive index of the material for some intermediate colour such as the sodium “D” Fraunhofer line of wavelength 5893 angstroms. The dispersive power (w) of the material is then defined as the ratio of the difference between the “F” and “C” indices and the “D” index reduced by 1, or,
Hundreds of different types of optical glass are currently available from manufacturers. These may be represented graphically on a plot of mean refractive index against dispersive power (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Relationships between refractive indices and dispersive powers of several representative optical glasses and plastics.
At first lenses were made from selected pieces of window glass or the glass used to make blown tableware. In the early 1800s, the manufacture of clear glass that was intended specifically for lenses began in Europe. The glass was slowly stirred in the molten state to remove striations and irregularities, and then the whole mass was cooled and broken up into suitable pieces for lens making. Subsequently, the pieces were placed in molds of the approximate size of the lens, slowly remelted to shape, and carefully annealed; i.e., allowed to cool slowly under controlled conditions to reduce strains and imperfections. Various chemicals were added in the molten state to vary the properties of the glass: addition of lead oxide, for example, was found to raise both the refractive index and the dispersive power. In 1884 it was discovered that barium oxide had the effect of raising the refractive index without increasing the dispersion, a property that proved to be of the greatest value in the design of photographic lenses known as anastigmats (lenses devoid of astigmatic aberration). In 1938 a further major improvement was achieved by the use of various rare-earth elements, and since 1950 lanthanum glass has been commonly used in high-quality photographic lenses.
The cost of optical glass varies considerably, depending on the type of glass, the precision with which the optical properties are maintained, the freedom from internal striae and strain, the number of bubbles, and the colour of the glass. Many common types of optical glass are now available in quite large pieces, but as the specifications of the glass become more stringent the cost rises and the range of available sizes becomes limited. In a small lens such as a microscope objective or a telescope eyepiece, the cost of the glass is insignificant, but in large lenses in which every millimetre of thickness may represent an additional pound in weight, the cost of the glass can be very high indeed.
Lenses can be molded successfully of various types of plastic material, polymethyl methacrylate being the most usual. Even multi-element plastic lenses have been manufactured for low-cost cameras, the negative (concave) elements being made of a high-dispersion plastic such as styrene.