From Aviators to Astronauts: The History of Sunglasses for People Who Live Dangerously

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Image courtesy of Carl Zeiss Vision
When you think of aviator sunglasses, maybe you envision Tom Cruise, who wore them in the movie Top Gun. Or, depending on your age and tastes, you might associate them with Hugh Jackman in X-Men, Al Pacino in Scarface, or Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City.

But the real aviator sunglasses, like many fashionable eyewear designs, started out as occupational aids. Real aviators wore them, just as later breakthroughs in sunglass technology were first developed for motorists, outdoors enthusiasts and even astronauts.

The history of eyewear for people who live dangerously is now on display in historical images and documents from the Optical Heritage Museum in Southbridge, Massachusetts. These materials, some of them unseen for a century or more, come from the archives of American Optical, now part of Carl Zeiss Vision.

In 1913, American Optical set out to make the perfect pair of glasses for flying an airplane. They drew on the company’s deep in-house expertise in optics, and also secured rights to a breakthrough lens technology developed by the famous British chemist Sir William Crookes. These innovations made it possible to block ultraviolet rays with minimal interference of the visible color spectrum. Crookes had experimented with more than 300 color variations, drawing on various metals and oxides, over a period of four years before choosing the optimal formula.


Image courtesy of Carl Zeiss Vision
Aviators had special eye protection needs back then, and faced far more risks than modern pilots. Airplanes were open-air vehicles, and wind, mist and debris were a constant risk. That’s why those original aviator sunglasses have such large lenses—not for style but for added protection. But motorists faced similar problems, as did sports enthusiasts and others who led active outdoor lives.

More than a century ago, American Optical began developing specialized eyewear for different activities and professions. Today, eyecare practitioners call this lifestyle dispensing. The word “lifestyle” didn’t exist in the English language at that time, but the concept was latent in these task-specific sunglasses.

Then sunwear got a dose of glamour, starting in the 1920s. During that decade, Hollywood movie stars were often photographed wearing sunglasses. Sunwear still needed to protect eyes, but style and fashion now were just as important to consumers. From this moment on, celebrities spurred new trends, and people would seek out sunglasses that matched what they saw on Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon, Jackie Kennedy and other famous people in the public eye.

Even so, sunglasses remained a high-tech product. The advent of new technologies, from polarization to innovative lens treatments, ensured that each generation of wearers had higher performance eyewear than their parents and grandparents. Sunwear might have been around since the days of the Roman Empire—Nero used to peer through an emerald while watching the gladiatorial fights—but it continued to evolve with advances in physics, chemistry and computer design software.


Image courtesy of Carl Zeiss Vision
The Apollo lunar program of the 1960s demonstrated that astronauts needed cutting-edge sunwear, just as pilots and motorists had in previous decades. Again, American Optical took on the responsibility for providing sunglasses for people with the most dangerous jobs.

During the Apollo mission, the company’s sunglasses were worn by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Jim Lovell and other astronauts. NASA even added a specially-designed pocket in the spacesuit to hold the specs. The pair Armstrong brought to the moon on the Apollo 11 trip is now on display in the Smithsonian Institute.

Others benefited from these advances. The sunglasses that went to the moon were also issued by the military to pilots and other personnel. Polarized lenses and UV treatments are now widely used by consumers.

“Sunwear is still a high tech field today,” said Zeiss vice president Karen Roberts. “We still have all the options that pilots and astronauts relied on back then. But we also have new lens treatments to enhance comfort and optimize vision, ultra-tough materials and coatings, designs to give high-definition clarity, and tints that add to both appearance and performance.

“We’ve come a long way since actual aviators wore those first aviator glasses. Fortunately you don’t need to live dangerously anymore to get the benefits,” Roberts concluded.