Friday, 7 September 2012

Elephant No. 341: Sunglasses

I was looking around at a dollar store for inspiration yesterday when I saw a pair of sparkly costume sunglasses. Because of the way the rims flared at the sides, it occurred to me that I might be able to use the sunglasses to make some sort of elephant.

The earliest sunglasses are thought to have been the walrus-ivory goggles worn by the Inuit some 2,000 years ago. Strapped onto the wearer's head, the eye coverings featured narrow slits which blocked most of the Sun's rays.

Inuit snow goggles, ca. A.D. 1200–1600.
Collection of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Gatineau, Canada

The next recorded eye shades appear to have been panes of smokey quartz, worn in China during the twelfth century A.D. Not only did they protect eyes from the Sun's glare, but they also served to hide the facial expressions of judges in Chinese courts during questioning.

Around the middle of the eighteenth century, English optician James Ayscough developed eyeglasses with hinged sidepieces, and also began experimenting with tinted lenses. In Ayscough's case, the tinting had less to do with protecting eyes from the Sun, and more to do with his idea that blue or green glass might be able to correct specific forms of visual impairment.

Tinted "vision-correcting" glasses by James Ayscough, ca. 1752.

By the early twentieth century, sunglasses were gaining in popularity, largely because of their use among movie stars. Some have suggested that actors wore sunglasses primarily to hide the red eyes that typically accompanied long hours of exposure to arc lighting in the early days of moviemaking. Others say that movie stars thought wearing sunglasses would prevent their being recognized by fans.

Which reminds me of an old joke that made the rounds when I was little (and probably many years before that):
Q: What did Tarzan say when he saw the elephants emerging from the jungle?
A: "Here come the elephants."
Q: What did Tarzan say when he say the elephants emerging from the jungle, wearing sunglasses?
A: Nothing—he didn't recognize them.
Sorry, I couldn't help myself.

The first mass-produced sunglasses in North America were introduced in 1929 by Sam Foster. He began selling his eponymous Foster Grant brand from a Woolworth's on the Atlantic City boardwalk, and the brand is still sold today.

Early Foster Grant sunglasses, ca. 1930.

Polarized sunglasses, which cut the Sun's glare considerably and make colours more saturated, became available in 1936. The lenses were invented by Edwin Land—famous as the maker of Polaroid cameras—who adapted his Polaroid filter to eyewear. Polarized lenses work by blocking the vertical, or magnetic components of light, reducing the glare from non-metallic surfaces such as water and snow. They are particularly popular among athletes and fishermen.

Today's sunglasses have essentially built upon these early beginnings. Available in a bewildering array of styles, coatings, colours and prescriptions, modern sunglasses are designed to cut glare, protect the eyes from harmful UV rays, and even hide the eyes entirely.

The primary purpose of sunglasses is, of course, to protect the eyes against visible and invisible rays of light. Most protect, in particular, against ultraviolet radiation, which can cause temporary conditions such as snow blindness, and more serious conditions such as cataracts and eye cancer. Most experts recommend sunglasses that filter out 100% of UVA and UVB light, which have wavelengths up to 400 nanometers. These are the sunglasses labelled "UV400".

No sunglasses can protect the eyes from permanent harm when looking directly at the Sun. This is particularly important to remember during a solar eclipse, when it is possible to stare at the Sun without realizing the damage that is being done. In Space, because the Sun's rays are so much stronger out there, astronauts wear sunglasses with darker lenses than on Earth, including a thin coating of gold as added protection. The visors on their spacesuits are similarly coated.

Dark sunglasses are not necessarily more protective than light sunglasses. In fact, dark lenses without enough UV protection are actually more harmful than wearing no sunglasses, as they cause the pupil to open wider, allowing more unfiltered radiation to enter the eye. One of my friends used to call these "retina-burners", which I thought was rather apt.

Neither is lens colour any kind of guarantee. Although yellow or brown lenses are best at blocking harmful blue light, not all of them will block blue light sufficiently. Price also has very little impact on UV protection. A number of studies have shown that there is no correlation between high-priced polarized glasses and better UV protection. In fact, one study showed that a pair of $7 sunglasses from a drug store performed better than a pair of $300 designer sunglasses.

Today, sunglasses have become ubiquitous in every country on Earth. As a result, there are now numerous slang names for sunglasses, including the following:

Cooling Glasses: used in southern India and the Middle East
Glares: used in India to describe sunglasses with dark lenses
Glecks: used in Scotland for both glasses and sunglasses
Shades: used primarily in the United States
Spekkies: used in southern Australia
Sunnies: used in Australia, South Africa, Britain, New Zealand

For today's elephant, my idea was to dress up the glittery sunglasses I'd bought with similar sparkly materials.

These are the sunglasses I bought, which are kind of fun on their own—for Hallowe'en, at any rate.

To add to these, I bought some sparkly foam sheets, thinking I could at least use these to add ears. I wasn't sure how I was going to deal with the trunk, and the packages of foam sheets only came with one sheet of silver. I bought two packages, hoping I could eke these out somehow.

I started by laying out the sunglass rim over a piece of paper to make a template.

I fiddled with this a bit, then drew a smaller shape for the inside of the ear, which I planned to cut out in pink. I marked both so that I would remember to turn them over when I cut.

I traced these out on the backs of the foam sheets. These foam sheets are peel-and-stick, so they had a convenient paper backing.

Once I'd cut out both the ears and inner ears, I peeled off the backing on the pink and assembled them. I also cut two additional pieces of silver foam to cover the backs of the ears.

Using a hot glue gun, I now glued each ear to the glasses. I was careful to put glue only on the parts of the glasses that would attach to the foam. I also fiddled with the foam when I stuck it down, so that none of the foam would show through the lenses.


Next came the trunk. I wanted the suggestion of a trunk, but not something so ridiculous that it would hang off the wearer's face. I used a thin strip left over from one of the sheets of silver foam, and cut it in half. This gave me two pieces each measuring about 2.5 cm by 12.5 cm (1 x 5 inches). I peeled the backing off of both of these and sandwiched them together.

To finish up, I trimmed everything that had been sandwiched, so that the edges were tidy, and attached the trunk to the nosepiece of the glasses, using a glue gun. I also gave the trunk a bit of a curl. It's long enough now to give the suggestion of a trunk, but sits more or less on top of the nose without dangling over.

The main thing in designing something like this is ensuring that it will still be wearable. These glasses are a bit small for my adult-sized head, but they are wearable. The arms open and close freely, and the ears don't impede vision. The trunk is also very light and isn't annoying sitting along your nose. The main irritant about these is the amount of glitter scattered everywhere. And obviously this is not something you'd want to be seen in, except on Hallowe'en or at a bizarre masquerade ball.

It took me about 40 minutes from beginning to end to make this, including taking the photos, so it's very easy and quick. You'll likely never see me modelling sunglasses like this, but they're pretty funny—and very sparkly—in real life, so they'll probably be allowed to hang around here for a while.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In a previous post I wrote about an elephant being fitted with a contact lens after getting poked in the eye with a twig, but this is the first time I've ever read about an elephant having surgery to address cataracts and glaucoma.

At the Paignton Zoo in England, forty-year-old Duchess had become virtually blind due to glaucoma and cataracts. The worst part for her keepers was that she was suffering pain from the degenerative conditions in her right eye. A difficult decision was thus made to remove Duchess's right eye to prevent further discomfort.

A team of 15 veterinarians and other experts began by sedating Duchess. They then inserted a drip line and set up equipment to monitor her breathing and other vital signs. She was also given a local anaesthetic around the eye.

During the four-hour operation, ophthalmologist Jim Carter and the team removed Duchess's right eye, then sewed the opening shut. False eyes are usually not inserted in animals.

African elephant Duchess undergoing delicate eye operation, December 2011.
Photo: ©

Following the operation, Duchess rose unsteadily to her feet, and began walking around her pen. Since then, she has made a full recovery. Although she still has a cataract in her remaining left eye, she is monitored constantly, and has been trained to lower her head so that staff can give her eyedrops to ease any discomfort.

In late August 2012, it was determined that the sight in Duchess's remaining eye was deteriorating further, and that she could likely distinguish between light and dark, but nothing else. It is now expected that she may undergo cataract surgery in the near future to help her regain a bit of vision, particularly for longer distances.

Interestingly, because elephants have notoriously poor close vision, and because they negotiate much of the world through sound, vibrations and smell, loss of vision is not as serious for elephants as it is for many other species.

Duchess at the Paignton Zoo in Devon, England, 2012.

To Support Elephant Welfare

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