History of Vintage Motorcycle Goggles

December 30, 2016

Vintage motorcycle goggles caught on much faster than helmets. As we have discussed in our article on vintage motorcycle helmets, it was not until over 30 years after the invention of the motorcycle that helmet use caught on. Goggles, on the other hand, were popular with motorcyclists from the start. Even at the slow speeds of early motorcycles, bugs and other debris were a common annoyance. Nobody likes a bug in the eye, so riders wore eye protection even in the very early days.

Vintage Motorcycle Goggles – Always In Style

Motorcycles have changed a lot in the last 100 years or so, but the experience of getting smacked in the eye by a bug remains quite similar. While goggle styles may have changed, the need and motivation to wear eye protection while riding remains the same. In fact, even before people were riding motorcycles, bicyclists facing similar problems used protective eyewear. Now you can find goggles with vintage style and modern safety properties.

Origins Of Protective Eyewear

Goggles for eye protection have been around for a very long time in some cultures. Can you guess where the first protected eye wear was used? Inuit and Yupik people, the “native” populations of the far north of North America and Russia, invented the first protective eyewear over 1,000 years ago. To prevent snow-blindness, they carved caribou antlers to fit close to the face like modern “wrap around” shades and made a slit to see through around a thousand years before the first motorcycles appeared.

Inuit Snow Goggles

Inuit Snow Goggles, Precursor to Vintage Motorcycle Goggles

While eyeglasses date back to the 13th century AD, African American inventor P Johnson invented the first generation of western protective eye wear in 1880. Johnson’s eye protectors, composed of two layers of semi-opaque cloth and targeted to people working around very bright light, offered very low visual acuity. Understandbly, they never caught on with motorcyclists. Just a few years later in 1885 a man by the name of Arthur Fullicks developed the idea of safety glass by bonding several layers of glass together. John Crane Woods aimed to improve on this idea. He bonded transparent cellulose nitrate between sheets of glass, but people did not buy his new invention. The high price and poor optical quality generated little enthusiasm.

Julius King Optical Company developed what could be called the first safety goggles in 1909. In 1910 French chemist Edouard Benedictus established patents for laminated safety glass. During World War I, manufacturers used laminated safety glass in gas masks. Subsequently, the safety glass innovation spread to industrial use and to products for motorists, aviators, and motorcyclists.

Shatter Resistant Vintage Motorcycle Goggles

By 1916, you could buy vintage motorcycle goggles with lenses specially designed to resist shattering on impact. In 1918, the American Engineering Standards Committee established the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) to rate safety equipment like safety glass lenses. Now ANSI rates modern polycarbonate safety lenses for their shatter resistance.

Tinted Vintage Motorcycle Goggles

In the 1920’s cars manufacturers were enclosing motorists who could now drive inside, out of the wind and away from the bugs and debris. Motorists drove a lot of the demand for eyewear. Now that they had gotten out of the wind, the focus shifted from preventing shattering on impact to reducing glare. New technology to tint motoring glasses spilled over to motorcyclists. Riders could now hope to see clearly even while looking into the sun with the new tinted lenses. Wellsworth, Kilglare, and American Optical produced tinted glasses and goggles for the mass market beginning in the 20s. Tinted lenses had been available earlier, but became much more widely available in the 1920s.

Steampunk Style vintage motorcycle goggles

Steampunk Style Vintage Motorcycle Goggles

Vintage Motorcycle Goggles Style

Early protective eyewear worn by motorcyclists and drivers was often designed like the iconic round-lensed “John Lennon” glasses with leather protection around the side reaching from the lens to the face, what we now commonly call “glacier glasses”. Motorcyclists favored designs more similar to aviator goggles. This type of protective eyewear had two round lenses with cylindrical leather or cloth padding forming a seal between the lens and the wearers face. Manufacturers joined the two lenses with a strap across the nose and included a second strap to go around the back of the head and hold them on.

This design is very popular in the modern “Steam Punk” fashion movement. Steam punk goggles often have some extraneous embellishments in the form of gears. If you look around though, you can easily find modern quality lenses fashioned in the style of vintage motorcycle goggles. That way, you can maintain an authentic vintage look AND your eyesight when you go riding your vintage motorcycle. Happy hunting!

rider with modern vntage motorcycle googles

Modern Version of Vintage Motorcycle Goggles