Bob Smith, inventor of ski goggles, dies at 78

Bob Smith, an orthodontist whose gnarly obsession with skiing through chest-deep powder compelled him to invent a revolutionary fog-resistant ski goggle and found the eyewear industry behemoth Smith Optics, died April 18 at his home in La Quinta, Calif. He was 78.

He had complications from heart surgery, said his son Drew Smith.

For generations, skiers carving through fresh snow struggled with single-pane goggles that misted from the sweat on their faces, leaving them nearly blind while careening down steep slopes.

“In skiing powder, snow would get inside the goggle through the vent holes, and the humidity would go way up, and, with a single lens . . . the thing got foggy,” Dr. Smith said in a 1981 interview with the skiing magazine Powder.

Dr. Smith’s innovation, in the mid-1960s, was a double-lens goggle with breathable foam to provide better ventilation. The new goggles significantly reduced fogging, and the design has become the industry standard.


Bob Smith, an orthodontist whose gnarly obsession for skiing through chest-deep powder compelled him to invent a revolutionary fog-resistant ski goggle and found the eye-wear industry behemoth Smith Optics, died April 18 at his home in La Quinta, Calif. He was 78. (Courtesy of Smith Optics)

Using dental tools, foam and glue, Dr. Smith began building his first prototypes on his kitchen table. He traded his new goggles for lift tickets to ski mountains in Idaho or sold them to ski patrollers, who provided him with feedback to tweak his designs.

He often took to the slopes to test his goggles. In the 1969 documentary film “The Last of the Ski Bums,” he was featured gliding through powder snow, a sensation the narrator likened to “skiing in a bubble bath.”

As demand for his goggles spread, Dr. Smith formed his own company in Ketchum, Idaho. By the late 1970s, the company was selling 200,000 goggles a year. The firm also tinkered with goggles that included electrically heated lenses and small fans to cool the face.

During the 1970s, Dr. Smith briefly formed a partnership with a rival, Scott U.S.A., but the relationship dissolved. For many years, the competition between the two companies was intense. The reputation of Dr. Smith’s goggles was noticeably boosted in December 1978 when President Jimmy Carter’s daughter, Amy, was photographed wearing a pair during a vacation in Crested Butte, Colo.

Dr. Smith later bought the Scott U.S.A. goggle division after that firm went bankrupt. He sold his goggles business in 1991. Today, Smith Optics earns more than $100 million in annual revenue and makes protective eyewear for surfers, snowboarders and the military’s Special Forces. The company’s “elite” line of goggles and glasses offer ballistics-tested performance that is Navy SEAL approved.

Robert Earl Smith was born May 12, 1933, in San Carlos, Calif., and graduated from dental school in San Francisco. He served in the Army as an orthodontist and was posted to Wiesbaden, Germany. On the weekends, he took trips to the Alps to ski.

Survivors include his wife of 28 years, Jean Huntington Smith of Sun Valley, Idaho; two sons, Drew Smith of Portland, Ore., and Colby Smith of Boise, Idaho; and four grandchildren. A son, Carter Smith, died in 1987.

In an interview, Drew Smith said he and his father had started the New Year by skiing some freshly combed trails in Sun Valley. Although his father was no longer quite as fast, Smith said the septuagenarian was, in ski parlance, “still rippin’ some groomers, for sure.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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