It is almost guaranteed that you will see people walking around the streets, during any season really, wearing a pair of sunglasses. Small, large, black, white, vintage to modern, just about every style in the history of sunglasses are prevalent today. Though these eyeglasses and lenses are made to enhance style, the primary function of sunglass lenses themselves is to protect your eyes from the harsh UV rays. Now, the lenses that are on the market today might be quite powerful in securing your eyes while making you look good in the process, they did begin somewhere, and that history itself is quite an amazing transformation.


The History of Sunglass Lenses -1200-1600 AD


No matter what generation or time period they are in, humans strived to shield their eyes from the sun. Because this, the earliest documented sunglasses date back to 1200-1600 AD, when early Arctic tribes developed carve eyeglasses out of leather, wood, bone, or from walrus ivory with a sole mission to block the glare from the ice and snow. Known today as "snow goggles," these worked well to provide protection and were also believed to be exceptionally helpful during hunting trips. Though no lenses were present here, it was a significant step in the right direction.


37-68 AD


Fast forwarding a bit in time, Emperor Nero in Rome discovered that he could reduce the sun's glare by looking through emeralds. Because of this, he would bring these gems with him to the Colosseum to watch the gladiator fights and chariot races easier. It may have turned the landscape a different color, but it was proven effective another milestone in sunglasses history.


1200-1300 Time Period


In the 1200s to the 1300s, China began innovating eyeglasses as well, but their goals were slightly different than merely eye protection. In China, judges wore sunglasses that were made from smoky quartz while in court as a way to hide their facial expressions as they tried to interrogate witnesses or perform civil service examinations.


This might sound funny, but celebrities today do the exact same thing when wearing sunglasses. They provide them with the added layer of privacy, just like these 1200-1300 judges desired.


1752 - Dawn of Color


You might be wondering where the starting line was in terms of lens colors. Well, heading into the 1700s, there was a man named James Ayscough, and he is the iconic person who developed green and blue tinted lenses. The shades he created used the same optics that microscopes used to fix visual impairments in relation to color-blindness and depth perception challenges.


1929 - Round Frames


Sam Foster is another name in the history of sunglasses that is a benchmark in the popularity rise. This was the time period when sunglasses and fashion really began to take off like wildfire. Sam Foster began selling round sunglasses at Atlantic City beaches, and it was proven to be highly successful. As a result, this became a catalyst for the sunglass desires to skyrocket, which started the demand for mass production. But still, lenses had a long way to go before they became much more effective.


1935- Anti Reflective Coating


You may or may not know about this one, but a man named Olexander Smakula was the genius inventor of anti-reflective coating. In 1935, discovered and perfected the AR coating technique, but the German military kept it a hidden secret until the beginning of World War II. Once the news got out, this coating became a pivotal element to sunglasses, and it eliminates glare from the sunlight reflecting into your eyes, and the back tinted surface helps deter rays from the sun behind you.


1937 - Aviator Shades


Though this is not exactly lens-related, it is still a foundational milestone in history, as aviator shades are still common to this day. Initially utilized by the Army Air Corps, Ray-Ban opened its doors, and the aviator shades became a stylish accessory for civilians as well. With the help of celebrity branding, aviator shades have risen in popularity, and have been on and off in style since they first came out.


1939 - Polarization


Welcome to the birth of polarized sunglasses. Invented by Edwin Land, these sunglasses revolutionized lenses and became a fashion staple across the country. In summary, polarized sunglass lenses have a filter that creates a vertical opening for light. In simpler terms, the light rays that reach your eyes vertically can fit through those said openings while blocking out the horizontal light simultaneously.


1947 - The First CR-39 Eyeglass Lenses


After the war, the Armorligte Lense company based in California has been noted to have created the first CR-39 eyeglass lenses. The CR-39 plastic is known to have an index refraction of 1.498, and the Abbe number is 58. Today, the CR-39 is a trademarked product of PPG Industries. Overall, it provides good optical clarity and is very easy to tint. The only downside is that it scratches easily, but that gets remediated later on in history.


1948 - Mirrored Glasses


A year after CR-39 was documented, mirrored glasses were introduced to the world. These glasses, favored by celebrities today like Gigi Hadid, are technical innovations that can reflect about 30% of the sun's infra-red rays. These lenses are generally valuable in conditions involving water, snow, sand, and places of higher altitudes. In addition, wearers will have a brown or grey tint from the mirror coating, which decreases the amount of light passing through.


1966 - Anti-Fog


Initially developed by NASA in 1966 for helmet visors during Gemini 9A, anti-fog agents/treatments are highly leveraged by sunglasses manufacturers today. The chemicals prevent condensation of water on lenses that resemble fog. They are also used on mirrors, camera lenses, goggles, and much more.


The 1980s - Polycarbonate Lenses


Welcome to the best of both worlds. Polycarbonate lenses came out in the 1980s by the Gentex Corporation, allowing people who have prescription glasses to correct their eyesight without adding thickness or distorting their vision. They are virtually unbreakable and were undoubtedly the lightest and thinnest lenses available at that time.


Bonus: In 1983, Foster Grant received a license from NASA to use its scratch-resistant coating technology as well, really transforming the 1980s lens creations to become superior. 


1990 - Photochromic lenses


Invented by William Armistead and Stanley Stookey back in the 1960s, photochromic lenses became officially introduced in 1990. Later in 1991, a company called Transition Optical, based in the United States, became the first company that commercialized plastic photochromic lenses as well. With these transitional lenses, it was easier for people to wear sunglasses while driving and still have the ability to read essential signs.


Conclusion - 2000s to Today


It is no secret that the history of sunglasses and sunglass lenses have come a long way since its first initial roots. Everything that has occurred in the past has led to the inventive developments that are showcased today. Aside from new trends and the rebirthing of older ones, lens creations are remarkable. In 2015, a California company called EnChroma Labs launched sunglasses that can correct color blindness when being worn. In 2017, smart glasses were launched that offer a variety of features, like cell phones, GPS, and YouTube viewing capabilities. In 2018, sunglasses called Snapchat Spectacles came with a built-in camera to send snaps easily while out and about.


Overall, it is impressive to see where this industry came from and how far it has grown today. Thus far, with so many advancements, it is exciting to see what evolutionary mark in history will come out next.



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