May 16, 2021
Well before laser measuring, alloy metals, high grade plastics, and Hollywood glam, humans needed to protect their eyes from the sun’s harmful rays. The origins of sun protecting eyewear from prehistoric times are thought to have come from Inuit tribes, and they were hardly the frame and lens combination we know today. In fact, the earliest eye protection was simply thin slits cut into walrus ivory, bone, or wood--blocking the sun’s oppressive glare in snowy areas by creating a very narrow opening for the ancient wearers to look through.
© Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images
Another very old “version” of sunglasses traces back to China in the 12th century where people used smoky quartz to reduce glare (but not to correct vision). It is also believed that Chinese judges used these quartz lenses like screens so that witnesses would not be able to see their facial expressions during questioning.
While not specifically designed to block the sun’s rays, many mark the work of English Optician James Ayscough in the mid 18th century as another leap in eyewear. He believed that using green and blue tinted lenses could help alleviate some vision problems, and was right; Green lenses are still considered one of the best lens colors for creating contrast by filtering out blue light!
As we turned into the 20th century, sunglasses innovation started heating up. Sir William Crookes invented the first UV blocking lens by using the element cerium in 1913. Movie stars began wearing them to avoid the prying eyes of the paparazzi in the 1920s, which of course only made them more popular. And, by the end of that decade, Sam Foster began bulk producing sunglasses out of celluloid, and selling them in Atlantic City, New Jersey. His company, Foster Grant, is often thought to be the first company to bring inexpensive sunglasses to the masses.
In the 1930s and 1940s, with the world at war, the US military became another big catalyst for the evolution of sunglasses. The Army Air Core specifically, sought out lenses which could help reduce glare at high altitudes for their pilots. From green-tinted aviators as we know them today to the development of gradient lenses (so pilots could see their instruments looking down, while protecting their eyes at the top) are a prime example. In 1936, Edwin Land who co-founded the Polaroid company, also developed filtered lenses to polarize light, and polarized sunglasses became a reality.