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A history of goggles

The first goggles for swimming were created in the 14th century.

The first goggles for swimming were created in the 14th century. | Photo Credit: Freepik

Did you know that goggles and sunglasses are not the same? Though it may not seem obvious, the two have completely different origins and purposes. While sunglasses are tinted glasses that protect the eyes from sunlight or glare, goggles are protective eyewear that sit snugly against the face. In the case of the latter, the origins of the type that protects the eyes from snow blindness is very different from those used when swimming or in motor sports or for industrial purposes.

The Inuit goggles

The Inuit goggles | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The first documented use of goggles is from the Inuit and other indigenous people in the Arctic. They created eyewear thousands of years to protect themselves from snow blindness. These were carved out wood, bones, walrus ivory, and even whale baleen and had thin horizontal or cross-shaped slits, which allowed them to see. In fact researchers say that the glare from the snow was cut off and vision became sharper. Some were set in decorative leather work with beads and carvings. As metal became available, designs were developed in that as well.

In the Himalayas

Wondering if the nomads and traders in the high Himalayas used something similar, I found two interesting references. Siddiq Wahid, from Ladakh, wrote about how the trading caravans used devices made of horse hair while crossing the high Tibetan plateaus. Maya Lubeck-Schricker, a researcher working on health issues of Changpa herders of Ladakh, noted that older generations of Changpas would wear mesh or yak fur before their eyes.

Persian pearl divers created the first known goggles for swimming in the 14th century. These were made of polished turtle shell that gave required transparency and protection. Other diving communities elsewhere in the world also devised their own equivalents.

With the arrival of the automobile, the motorcycle and the aeroplane at the turn of the 20th century, special gear that included goggles (to protect the eyes from debris, insects and air movement) had to be worn, as none of these transport modes were enclosed. In 1911, Thomas Burgess wore modified motorcycle goggles while swimming the English Channel. In 1926, Gertrude Ederle used similar goggles sealed with paraffin wax to protect her eyes when she swam the channel. Only in the 1970s when Scottish swimmer David Wilkie wore swim goggles at the Commonwealth Games did this protective feature become regular in competitive swimming.

In the 21st century, a new sort of goggles made its entry: the virtual reality headset. These do not protect the eyes but block out light and provide a stereoscopic three-dimensional display. Not unlike the original Inuit goggles!

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Printable version | Aug 11, 2022 1:41:29 am |