The history of sunglasses can be traced back to ancient Rome around the year AD 60, where the Emperor Nero is said to have watched gladiator fights whilst holding up polished emerald-green gems to his eyes, thus reducing the effect of the sun’s glare. The very first actual recorded evidence of the use of sunglasses can be found from a painting by Tommaso da Modena in Italy, 1352, showing a person wearing sunglasses.
Earlier, around the twelfth century in China, sunglasses were worn by court judges, not to protect their eyes from the sun, but in order to conceal any expressions in their eyes as it was important to keep their thoughts and opinions secret until the end of each trial. These were flat panes of quartz that had been polished smooth and then smoked to give their tint.
It was not until 1430 that prescription glasses were first developed in Italy to correct vision, and these early rudimentary spectacles soon found their way to China, where they were again tinted by smoke to be used by the judges. The frames were carved out of either ivory or tortoiseshell, and some were quite ornate.
During the 17th century prescription glasses were being used in England to help elderly presbyopic people to see better. The Spectacle Makers Company was founded in England who started manufacturing prescription glasses for the public, whose motto was “A Blessing to the Aged”.
The development of sunglasses, however, remained static until the work of James Ayscough, who was known for his work on microscopes in London around 1750. He experimented with blue and green tinted lenses, believing they could help with certain vision problems. These were not sunglasses, however, as he was not concerned with protecting the eyes from the sun’s rays.
Prescription spectacles continued to be developed over the next few decades, especially regarding the design of the spectacle frames and how to get them to sit comfortably on the nose. The frames were made from leather, bone, ivory, tortoiseshell and metal, and were simply propped or balanced on the nose. The early arms or sidepieces of the frames first appeared as strips of ribbon that looped around the backs of the ears. Rather than loops, the Chinese added ceramic weights to the ends of the ribbons which dangled down behind the tops of the ears. Solid sidepieces finally arrived in 1730, invented by Edward Scarlett. Later on, lens technology made a great leap forward when Benjamin Franklin famously invented the first bifocal lens in 1780, called the “Franklin split” bifocal, enabling presbyopic patients to read and also see in the distance without the need for separate distance and reading glasses.
Sunglasses, as we know them today, were first introduced by Sam Foster in America, 1929. These were the first sunglasses designed specifically to protect people’s eyes from the harmful sun’s rays. He founded the Foster Grant Company, and sold the first pair of Foster Grant sunglasses on the boardwalk by the beaches in Atlantic City, New Jersey. These were the first mass-produced sunglasses, and from this year onwards, sunglasses really began to take off. When I say “take off”, I mean that quite literally, because in the 1930’s, the Army Air Corps asked a company Bausch & Lomb (who still exist today) to produce a spectacle tint that would efficiently reduce high altitude sun glare for pilots. They developed a dark green tint that absorbed light in the yellow band of the visible spectrum.
In 1936, Edwin H Land patented the Polaroid filter for making polarized sunglasses. This type of tint reduces glare reflected from surfaces, such as water. Later in that same year, Rayban took the design of pilots sunglasses further by producing the aviator-style sunglasses that we know today, using this recently invented polarized lens technology. The edge of the frame characteristically drooped away at the edges by the cheeks in a sort of tear drop shape, to give a full all-round protection to the pilots eyes, who regularly had to glance down towards the aircraft’s instrument panel. The polarized lens reduced the glare from light reflected off the instrument panel. Pilots were given these sunglasses free of charge, but in 1937 the general public were allowed to purchase this aviator-style model that “banned” the sun’s rays as Rayban sunglasses.
In 1960, Foster Grant started a big advertising campaign to promote sunglasses, and pretty soon famous film stars and pop stars started wearing sunglasses as part of their image. The public began to adopt this new fashion of wearing sunglasses, not just to protect their eyes from bright light, but also as a way of looking good.
Today, sunglasses are continuing to be improved with efficient UV blocking tints, cutting out all the harmful ultra-violet light. Various coloured tints are now available and, of course, the frame styles are very varied and exciting. Now you can really make a statement with your fashion sunglasses, transforming your image or creating a new look. Designer sunglasses have certainly come a long way in just a few years, and now not only protect our eyes from the harmful sun’s rays, but are also an important fashion accessory – and it all started nearly 2,000 years ago with the Roman Emperor Nero!