by Sarah A

Swimming Goggles Are Older Than You Think

Swimming goggles are an essential tool for open-water swimmers and ...
Man-swimmer-swimming goggles

When swimming in open water, whether you are planning a cold water dive, an ice swim or simply enjoying the bracing feel of a lake against you, swimming goggles are an essential part of avoiding irritation, ensuring you can see clearly and helping to improve performance.

Their modern history begins with David Wilkie, who won a medal at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in no small part thanks to his innovative use of a swimming cap and a pair of goggles, both of which would quickly become the standard for competitive swimming.

Before this was the legendary achievement of Florence Chadwick, the first woman to swim the English Channel in both directions. Her record-setting swims would popularise commercial swimming goggles over the next two decades.

This was the culmination of nearly half a century of development, patents and the convergence of several technological innovations.

However, to find the origins of goggles used for swimming and to keep eyes safe underwater, we need to travel back another five centuries.


Ocular Origins

The concept of eye protection is ancient, and the first ever goggles of any kind were made by the Inuit and Yupik people as a way to survive unfathomably treacherous arctic environments.

To avoid the issue of photokeratitis, better known as snow blindness caused by the reflection of ultraviolet light, hunters would carve slits into eye covers made of caribou antlers to minimise the level of exposure to the eyes.

Whilst the concept is useful for illustrating the first use of eye protection, naturally a solution like this would not be useful for swimming, and for the vast majority of the world, it would take until the widespread use of transparent glass as well as the invention of vulcanised rubber before they would see more widespread use.

However, there are some earlier uses than this, and by far the most fascinating of these emerged in the 14th century in what is now modern-day Iran.

Pearl divers in Persia at the time would need to carefully look underwater to find the oysters, mussels and glimmers of pearls that could be sold to make a living.

However, because free divers were going down as deep as 30m in a single breath, the waves, water pressure, salt and everything else had the potential to damage the eyes, leading to a short career at best, and potential death at worst.

To get around this, divers would start to polish the outer layers of tortoiseshell until they produced a translucent window, allowing them to not only see underwater but also protect their eyes slightly due to the natural tint tortoiseshell provides.

They would continue to be popular for centuries in the Persian Gulf and there is some evidence that other countries had early goggle traditions. However, attempts to trade these goggles were not successful enough for historical evidence of their existence and use to be easily found.

Similarly, divers in Polynesia eschewed glass entirely, relying on large, carefully shaped wooden goggles to create an air pocket that allowed them to easily see as long as the goggles always pointed downwards.