A Brief History of Prescription Windshields

I've been spending a lot of time recently adding to the April Fool archive, and in doing so I've noticed that a lot of April 1st jokes get repeated again and again over the years. One joke in particular caught my eye. In the past 20 years, prescription windshields (or windscreens, as the British say) have been the theme of corporate April Fool campaigns at least 4 separate times — and possibly more, for all I know.

This made me wonder: how old is the 'prescription windshield' joke?

It's probably as old as automobile windshields. But one of the earliest references to it I found was in a Gracie Allen joke from 1950:

School authorities warn that "television has produced a new classroom problem, called telesnooze, due to weary children falling asleep in classes after watching TV the night before."
It can hurt their eyes too. My mother wrote me about a family of nine kids who all need glasses because of television. Their poor parents couldn't afford to get glasses for that many kids so they bought a 1950 Cadillac with a prescription windshield. In order to study their lessons, the mother drives the kids around town and their father sits on the hood and holds the schoolbook and turns the pages for them.
If there's ever a "gas" shortage, their homework will certainly suffer.

It continued to circulate as a joke in stand-up routines. In some versions of the joke, the prescription windshields are an extravagant luxury of the extremely rich. And there's another version in which they're an anti-theft device, because only the owner can drive the car.

From the 1950s to the 70s, prescription windshields became a fairly popular theme in comic strips:

Bringing Up Father - June 10, 1954

Beetle Bailey - Sep 21, 1958

Wayout - Aug 14, 1967

Dooley's World - Sep 13, 1974

It was in 1995 that prescription windshields first appeared in an April Fool ad campaign, when BMW UK introducted "Optiglass" — a new optical technology that eliminated the need for BMW drivers to wear glasses. The tagline for the campaign was, "You don't need glasses. You need a BMW."

In 2006, the Dutch car-window company GarageGlas introduced prescription windshields supposedly "developed in collaboration with Russian researchers of the Lebedev Physics Institute in Samara." They said there was a button on the dashboard that allowed drivers to set the window to strengths of -5 to +5. And there was another button that allowed zooming in and out. The company made this announcement a week before April 1st, which meant that quite a few people didn't realize it was a joke. GarageGlas received over a hundred serious inquiries about the new windshields, including from one person who wanted to know how the prescription windshields worked with the rearview mirror.

In 2010, the UK company Auto Windscreens came out with prescription windscreens, and even put together a video about them.

Finally, on April 1st of this year the Dutch branch of the SpecSavers eyewear chain announced they were diversifying into prescription windshields. They even ran a special. Buy a prescription windshield for your front window and get the rear window free!

Would it even be possible to make a prescription windshield? I have no idea. But it turns out that people on a Straight Dope message board have actually thought through some of the problems such a windshield would pose, and the problems are significant. They include:
  • Only one person could drive the car
  • If you moved your head too much, everything would go out of focus
  • Such a huge lens would be incredibly expensive to grind and polish
  • And finally, such a huge lens would be incredibly thick at the edges. One person notes, "The edge thickness of a lens the size of a windshield would be measured in feet, even if you could get a 1.5mm center thickness."

April Fools Day Technology

Posted on Fri Nov 01, 2013


I can't focus on much beyond the end of my nose, so I'd need to have my face pressed to the glass to see out of it using a prescription.
Posted by Mr R  on  Tue Nov 05, 2013  at  05:29 AM
Haven't you seen the wide-angle reversing lenses for RVs etc ?
The thickness only builds up less than a millimetre (1/32-inch) then steps back down again - Google[Fresnel lens]

Biggest problem is judging angles at intersections ...
Posted by Only Me  on  Sun Jan 05, 2014  at  10:03 PM
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