Tag Archives: Thomas Burgess

The history of swimming goggles

This post came about as a touch of serendipity. After I posted about Swedish goggles Irish distance swimmer and former national four hundred mete champion and Channel Aspirant Colm Breathnach tweeted me about Godfrey Goggles, a type of goggle in use in Ireland and the UK primarily in the 1960s and ’70s.

When as a kid I started playing and swimming in the new indoor-how-fantastic-pool  we did’t use goggles initially and I clearly recall becoming more and more affected by the chlorine burn until we finally started using goggles. All I can recall of them is the squishy foam and that a pair of goggles was expected to last years and that visibility wasn’t as significant a requirement as chlorine protection.

It was easy to find some sources online for the history, notably the International Swimming Hall of Fame. So all I’m doing is collating some of that information for your entertainment.

14th century: The first recorded version of goggles may have been polished or layers of polished tortoise shells in Persia.

14th century Venetian Goggles

16th century: The Persian goggles were imported to Venice where they were illustrated in the image above.

18th Century: Polynesian skin divers used deep wooden frames. By keeping the face facing downward, air was trapped and protected the eyes from the salt water. Once glass became available (in Polynesia from European explorers) they were the first to incorporate glass lenses, though they were not fully waterproof and were easily dislodged.

Thomas Burgess in the English Channel
Thomas Burgess in the English Channel

1911: Thomas Burgess became the first swimmer to use goggles to cross the English Channel. It’s worth noting that both Captain Webb and Burgess were using breaststroke, front crawl still not having been fully developed.

1916: Swim goggles are patented by C.P. Troppman for use in underwater swimming but there’s no evidence of manufacture or use.

Gertrude Ederle face mask goggles
Gertrude Ederle wearing face mask goggles

1928: Gertrude Ederle becomes the sixth person, first woman and fastest swimmer to date to swim the English Channel, and the first using front crawl (aka freestyle), using a full face mask of motorcycle goggles sealed by parafin wax.

Gertrude Ederle's goggles now in the Smithsonian museum
Gertrude Ederle’s goggles now in the Smithsonian museum

1940: Popular Science magazine prints instructions on how to make wooden goggles.

1940s & 1950s: Florence Chadwick and other open water swimmers use their own versions with large rubber seals and double-lens glass.

1960: Individual swimmers started creating very basic goggles with plastic cups held to the face with elastic.1st goggles ad

1968: Advertisements appear for plastic goggles in Swimming World Magazine. Apparently they are not an instant hit.

1969: Godfrey Goggles are manufactured in the UK by Thomas Godfrey. He tried a couple of types of plastic before settling on one that hadn’t previously been used for sports but we now know well; polycarbonate. Thin, light and highly durable and shatter resistant. Scotland’s David Wilkie becomes the first every competitive swimmer to wear both a cap and goggle combination at the 1972 Commonwealth Games, taking silver in the 200m breaststroke. Wilkie later went on to become the only person ever to hold only person to have held British, American, Commonwealth, European, World and Olympic at the same time. Subsequently Godfrey Goggles are allegedly copied and pirated by many goggle companies.

Since 1972: Goggles become standard swimmer equipment. It’s strange to realise that so recently they were not used by swimmers. Anti-fog, UV protection and streamlining are all incremental developments. Malmsten Swedish Goggles are released in the mid-seventies, allegedly a rip-off of the Godfrey Goggles. Swim training sessions get longer, flip-turns faster. Goggles allow elite swimmers to swim more than 4000 metres. The Men’s 1500 time drops by two minutes (13%) over three consecutive Olympics.

2000’s: Hipsters everywhere, even in swimsuits! You can purchase these wooden googles. They might make for an unusual or fun English Channel photo. But still…hipsters.

2008-2011: A brief attempt by Tony Godfrey’s grand-daughter Ashleigh to resurrect her grandfather’s business does not seem to haven been to been successful.

The Future?: Instabeat’s goggles look to be the first in a possible new wave of high-tech goggles, providing heart rate information and timing to the wearer through the lens, with future versions planned to integrate GPS. Beyond that at some point goggles similar to Google Glass seem likely.