The history of swimming goggles

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.

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.

Update: Thanks to the fascinating information from M. Muphy I can add to the list that a patent was also issued by the US Patent office,1,742,412, in 1930 after use since 1927, to an Irish clergyman, Rev. M. O’Flanagan, and which unlike Troppman’s goggles,were manufactured and sold for local use, for a mere seven and sixpence.

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 Is Here: Frankengoggles become a reality with Instabeat’s goggles which look to be the first in a 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. Followed by Iolite GPS goggles and by On-Course magnetic line tracking goggles. Beyond that at some point goggles similar to Google Glass seem likely. All are similar in that they detract from the basic skills such as the challenge of open water navigating and sighting.

Any legitimate open water swimmer regardless of swimming distance or skill level should refuse to use products which offer technological diversions to avoid developing the essential skills of open water swimming. Luckily when writing the Marathon Swimmers Federation Rules, we anticipated such products and they are considered assisted-swim device and hence illegal.


13 thoughts on “The history of swimming goggles

  1. Pingback: كل ما تريد ان تعرفه عن السباحة – Ashby & Co.

  2. Dates are wrong. Speedo head forr europe Mr Vincent gave Tony a prototype from Aussie. He gave them to me to try in June 1970 and I told tony they we’re great although they looked like mini green welding glasses. TONY had the first batch of goggles ready a few months later but the foam rims for eyepiece were not always effective.


  3. Pingback: Swimming Goggles - Ten Random Facts

  4. Godfrey Goggles were produced by TONY GODFREY (not Thomas). First produced in 1969 and worn in competitive swimming by David Wilkie in 1970, Tony’s goggles were worn by so many top swimmers throughout the world for many years to come. These were copied but no others can state that they were the originals … only Godfrey Goggles from swimming coach, Tony Godfrey. It would be nice if this was recorded in the swimming hall of fame … How do I get this recorded?


    • Thanks for the correction Mel. I don’t know about the ISHOF, but with the IMSHOF, anyone could nominate anyone else for induction. I imagine the ISHOF is a pretty open organisation about updating this information.


  5. Personal experience of swim goggles’ early days; this predates your first quote a little…

    When I started competitive pool swimming (Arlington, Virginia USA, a suburb of Washington, D.C.) there were no goggles. This was very late ’50s. And that “chlorine burn” was horrible: eyes tearing all night, rings around lights, hard to read or study (no great loss). Plus the Hyperopia effect of not being able to see that well underwater (resulting in my hitting walls and people regularly). Kinda miserable, but we knew no better.

    Then a funny thing happened: these weird inventors started showing up at our workouts with prototypes for what they were calling “swimming goggles.” And we were the test subjects (“Hey, kid, come here and try these on; gonna change your life”). And some of these ideas were BAD, really bad. Like the plastic semi-spheres that stuck directly onto your eyeballs. Ouch! But others seemed more practical. Anyway, skip ahead to my college years and still no commercial goggles even though I was on a high-level college swim team, circa 1968. (Google Images for Mark Spitz – my contemporary – and you’ll see he won his ’68 Olympics medals with no goggles) Then I quit swimming for about 8 years; didn’t touch the water or visit a pool. And when I returned around 1976 in Master swimming: bingo, everyone was wearing goggles. Nirvana.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: How To understand and choose between the different types of swimming googles | LoneSwimmer

  7. Tactful comment about the pirating of Tony Godfrey’s goggles 😉 A certain company claims to have invented them but their website says the company wasn’t formed until 1974!


    • I’ve updated the last entry to add both iolite and on-course googles.I’ve also added that these new frankengoggle devices are performance-assisting devices and hence illegal under all variants of marathon and Channel swimming rules that’s I’m familiar with. I hope the national and international swimming associations will rapidly follow suit in banning them as performance-assisting devices from all levels and distances of competition.


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