Icon and Ski Bum Dr. Robert Smith Dies at 78

Founder of Smith Optics revolutionized goggle technology.

Photos: Courtesy of the Smith Family

Words: John Stifter

If you think your goggles fog too much now, you should have been a skier before 1965. That’s when an orthodontist named Dr. Bob Smith created the first double-pane goggle with a sealed thermal lens and breathable vent foam, which dramatically reduced foggy goggles on the slopes.

The innovative founder of Smith Optics, Smith died on Wednesday, April 18, in Palm Desert, California. His wife, Jean, of 48 years was at his bedside. The 78 year old had a pacemaker implanted a few days earlier to combat a slow heartbeat. Complications ensued and he did not survive, according to his son, Drew Smith.

In an exclusive interview that appeared in the December 1981 issue of POWDER, Dr. Bob, as friends referred to him, explained how he conceived the idea of a double-lens goggle while working in dentistry for the U.S. Army in Germany and making weekend ski trips to Kitzbuhel, Austria. “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 temperature would be transmitted right through the lens and, of course, the thing got foggy right now. So the double lens stops that cold air transmission through the lens so that the inner lens gets a chance to warm up.”

Once he got a patent for open-cell foam used for venting, he employed the help of dental students back home in Northern California to glue the pieces together. He produced the goggles by hand with his wife and friends around the kitchen table, using dental tools to build a double-lens goggle with breathable foam that he’d trade for free lift tickets at Alta and Jackson Hole. Soon thereafter, he sold them to ski shops for $20. In 1967, Smith appeared in Dick Barrymore’s The Last of The Ski Bums, showcasing his new goggle technology while skiing powder at Jackson Hole.

“Absolutely, his invention had an impact on our sport,” said president of Smith Optics Ned Post, who worked with Dr. Bob years later at Scott Sports. “Our mission at Smith today is to make the great days better through quality eyewear. In that sense, Bob was the beginning of that philosophy. He was passionate to improve his vision on the hill, and he had a great passion for skiing powder.”

“He needed to see on the hill, so he made it happen,” said Drew Smith, who noted that upcoming memorials in Ketchum are currently being planned. “His drive and passion for skiing is second to none. He had a lot of ‘Smith’ kind of days.”

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  • David Bloom

    I remember Bob and his wife Jean who was a patient in my office.Very nice people.Sorry to hear of Bob’s passing away. David Bloom

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