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From Polished Shell to High Tech

That satisfying, comforting squeachly ‘shlup’ as you press those favourite goggles around your eyes, making sure, hoping they are completely watertight. The snap as the band slaps the back of your head. Perhaps a slight readjustment of the band, but not too much. No one ever mentions it, no one ever talks about it, but everyone does the suctioning ‘shlup’ of the rubber seal on their eyes, just to make sure those little plastic protective cups stay firmly a fixed.

Swimming goggles have come a long way since their introduction back in the 14th century. Persian records don’t give away anything that resembles that comforting suction that regular swimmers of today would be familiar with.

The goggles from the 14th century were recorded to be made of polished tortoise shell however nothing was ever noted to keep them firmly on the eye of the swimmer. Documents of the 16th century show goggles were being imported from Venice to Persia. By the 18th century Polynesian divers had improved the design of the eyewear by incorporating some wooden frames and glass (once it was available in the region). The tribes of the area also adapted their diving technique to dive face first to create an air pocket increasing the effectiveness of the goggles. However goggles still were still not very waterproof and didn’t provide that satisfying ‘shlup’ around the eyes.

In 1911 the world witnessed Thomas Burgess swim the English Channel as the first successful swimmer with what were being referred to as goggles strapped to his face. Sadly as photographs now reveal these ‘goggles’ were no more than motorbike goggles and as other sources may suggest they could have been sealed with paraffin wax. Suspiciously no satisfying suctioning ‘shlup’ in sight.

Yet there is hope, an American by the name of Mr Charles J Troppman invented something we can recognise today as swimming goggles. The patent application was filed by F A Hardy & Co on 11th Feb 1915.

Patent submitted by CJ Troppman in 1915

Although disappointment reigns, there is no evidence of production of this marvellous invention, our journey continues.

This is where Fr Michael O’Flanagan enters. In 1914 Fr O’Flanagan was tinkering around with his glass bottomed boat, somewhere in Ireland, wanting to see the water better. The ‘light bulb’ moment of swimming goggles was switched! The bathing goggles were a hit and for a few years. You could purchase a stylish pair directly from the inventor for a grand total of seven and sixpence (according to the Irish Independent, 1927).

Fr O’Flanagan’s advertisement

As the advertisement boastfully proclaims “surround your eyes with airtight chambers” there’s fair assessment of suctioning ‘shlup’.

A few years later in the early 30’s whilst travelling through the USA publicising a political career he filed an application to the American Patent Office. He received the paperwork once he returned home to Ireland.

In 1940 things begin to get serious and the Magazine “Popular Magazine” publish a page about how to make your own goggles. Using nonporous hardwood specific from Hawaii, plain plate glass, shellac and surely some linen cord you would have lying around the house. Within a short time and some experienced wood carving skills you’d be set with your own pair of fine expert diving goggles.

Magazine advertisement from 1940s, where you make your own goggles

The desire for underwater eyewear continued and Florence Chadwick was another swimmer to cross the English Channel in the 1950s and appeared to sport a pair of large, double lens rubber goggles to protect her eyes and improve her visibility from harsh sea water. These goggles were record setters with assisting Chadwick in completing the swim in both directions.

In wasn’t until the swinging 60s that the modern swimming goggles made their formal appearance. Where they were first advertised in Swimming World Magazine for $2 a pair and guaranteed to eliminate the eye irritation that had become common place for so many. The ‘shlup’ factor was finally here to stay, so we thought, bizarrely they didn’t take off. The reason was swimming caps. Swimmers found it hard to keep goggles on discovering the straps would slip around too much. It wasn’t until a Scottish Breaststroker by the name of David Wilkie put on goggles and a swimming cap at the 1970 Commonwealth Games that some noticed something about these bizarre facial contraptions.

Then the rumble began, nearer the end of the 70s, Swedish swim manufacturer Melsten AB began production of the Swedish swim goggles for competitive swimmers. These goggles removed all suctioning ‘shlup’ factor. Favoured by competitive swimmers and are produced and still worn today to this day without any rubber to suction to the face. They are extremely painful to wear accounting for their time length of only being worn for short periods. These Swedish goggles are the best around. Competitive swimmers reportedly claim the silicone strap lasts longer, the peripheral vision is superior and the cost can be as little or as expensive as desired.

Although, we return back to swimming goggles for mere mortals. Once Melsten began production of the elite brand from Sweden, regular more comfortable swimming goggles began taking off and these definitely had the ‘shlup’ factor.

Eyeline was one of the first companies to provide goggles to the Australian market and quickly became one of the front runners. Zoggs appeared in the early 90s and then Speedo also appeared. Many brands now cover this area of the market.

From something that most likely originated from motorcycle goggles or making your own from nonporous Hawaiian wood its now far easier to purchase a pair in store or online.

A pair can cost anything from an affordable $15 to a costly $600 with inbuilt technology that will sync to your smart phone, without you having to even count your laps, stroke rate and split times.

It’s safe to say the comforting suctioning ‘shlup’ factor as you press your favourite goggles into your eyes just before you head into the water is here to stay.

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