When we think of the military, images of war are often the first thing that come to mind. Yet our armed forces play a crucial role not only in wartime, but in peacetime as well. The military, with its vast budget and resources, is a catalyst for change in many fields, including vision technology.

The earliest and perhaps most celebrated example of the military’s influence in the optical industry is the development of the aviator sunglass. Aviators were developed in the years after World War I when the Army Air Corp. contracted Bausch & Lomb to make a sunglass that could protect pilots from eye strain, particularly while flying at high altitudes. This always popular style, which features a teardrop shape that completely covers the eyes, is now hotter than ever thanks to the legions of young women who consider it a must-have fashion accessory.

Plastic lenses are an indirect result of military research. During World War II, Pittsburgh Plate Glass, later known as PPG Industries, developed a resin they called CR-39 that the U.S. Army Air Force used to produce lightweight fuel tanks for B-17 bombers. When the war ended, PPG was left with a rail tank car full of CR-39 which they offered to Univis and other companies that were experimenting with casting plastic lenses. Later, Armorlite, SOLA and Lissac, a forerunner of Essilor, successfully produced CR-39 lenses, and the rest is history.

Another lens product that resulted from military research is Trivex, a high-impact, mechanically stable, optically pure, and chemical and heat resistant material for use in helicopter windshields and fighter jet canopies. After tailoring the chemistry specifically for the optical lens market, PPG introduced Trivex in 2002.

One of the most influential optical technology incubators is DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). DARPA has helped to develop cutting-edge optical products such as emacula, an augmented reality and virtual reality system that involves contact lenses and display eyewear designed, patented, developed and clinically tested by a team of optometrists, ophthalmologists, optical physicists, engineers and nano-fabrication technologists.

Let’s salute the sometimes overlooked but considerable contributions that our armed forces have made to the optical industry and to eyeglass wearers.

Andrew Karp
Group Editor, Lenses and Technology
akarp@jobson.com