The Evolution of a Mask

The snorkeler's mask has often been referred to as the window to the underwater world. What many people do not realize is that the origins of this window extends farther into history than they might think. When looking at the history you would first have to take the history of swim goggles into consideration with the understanding that these are quite different from snorkeling masks.

Masks, or a form thereof, have been seen in drawings by the renowned artist, sculptor and inventor Leonardo da Vinci. His idea stemmed from a desire to create something with which to perform underwater sneak attacks on enemy ships. The result was actually the precursor to scuba diving. It was a suit actually made of leather with lenses incorporated from which to see out. This idea was recorded via a drawing made around the year 1500 while he was working in Venice.

It wasn't until the 1900's when mask designs started to look a bit closer in design to the ones that are seen today. Most were homemade and hand built using items that may have included tire tubing, leather, copper glass or plastics. Masks were not commercially available did not begin appearing until about the 1940's. These early models consisted mainly of an oval piece of glass or plastic with a cylindrical piece of rubber stretched over the edges and held into place by a metal band clamp. They were simplistic in design and when the mask was worn it covered the face to include the nose while leaving the mouth free to allow the use of a snorkel. Incorporating the nose into the mask reminded the user to breathe through their mouth to avoid accidental inhalation of water into the nasal passages. The user's nose could clearly be seen through the lens of the mask. This design was suitable for surface use but skin diving to any depth posed a problem with being able to equalize the pressure on the ears because there was no easy access to the nose. For more on this read out 'The Pressure is On' article. This problem was solved in 1952 when a company called Cressi introduced a mask called the Pinocchio which featured a dedicated nose pocket that was incorporated into the skirt of the mask. The obvious reference to the wooden boy puppet of bedtime story fame was humorous but it did draw attention to this landmark innovation. It is interesting to note that the Pinocchio mask is still offered by Cressi.


The rubber that was used in mask skirts in the early years made the wearer feel as though they were looking through a tunnel because the rubber blocked any of the illuminating lights rays. Changing the color of the rubber to white or lighter shades of blue helped alleviate this tunnel vision somewhat but there were other factors that made rubber less preferable for use in mask skirts and straps. Prolonged exposure to heat and even lower temperatures caused deformation and shrinkage of the rubber. Higher temperatures caused obvious melting. Ultra Violet rays, exposure to Oxygen and exposure to chemicals found in pool environments such as chlorine also aided in the degradation of rubber making it become brittle, develop cracks and lose its elasticity. The life, using natural rubber was shortened with every use. Avid snorkelers using the natural rubber skirting could expect to have to repurchase their mask or goggles after as little as a season of use.


A Synthetic rubber product called silicone began replacing natural rubber in masks with it with it's first catalogue appearance in 1971 by a company called U.S. Divers. It was found that silicone was more resistant to the degradation caused by the elements. It was more heat resistant as well as more resistant to chlorine damage from constant use in pool environments. It also showed better resistance to the damage caused by Ultra Violet light rays. The early silicone used were cloudy but allowed light to penetrate which took away a bit of the tunnel vision associated with natural rubber mask skirts. In a relatively short period of time these cloudier silicone were replaced by clearer versions which is what is found everywhere in the snorkeling world today. The silicone are still subject to degradation but the severity has been greatly diminished. Silicone, when exposed to oxygen does begin to become cloudy and opaque over time but this is more of a cosmetic degradation rather than affecting the elasticity of the material. To learn more on caring for your mask read Care & Maintenance - Masks.


The actual viewing window portion of the earlier models was, as previously stated, made using either glass or plastics. While these two types of media were acceptable the lenses using the plastics were more subject to scratches, scrapes and scuffs which eventually would interfere with the viewing capability of the user. Glass proved to be more resistant and quickly became the more preferred material for use. The glass used was not the same type as was used in drinking glasses. Safety Glass was used which was a process of bonding two layers of glass together with a thin layer of polyvinyl butyral between them. When the glass was broken it shattered in a way that the lens would still retain it's shape. Up until the 1930's this was the same type of glass that was used in car windshields. Manufacturers later began using a type of glass called "tempered" which was more of a toughened glass. The properties of this type of glass in comparison to that of safety glass was that it was harder to break and when it did, it shattered in chunks rather than jagged pieces. This is the type of glass found in quality masks today. These are probably the same reasons that the automobile industries began using it in car windshields until it finally became standard in the 1970s. Tempered glass was easily recognizable as it had a slightly green tint to it due to the iron content which was used in manufacturing it.

In 2008-2009 a company by the name of Oceanic introduced a glass lensed masked that touted ultra clear tempered glass. The glass used had a reduced iron content which got rid of the greenish tint and provided a truer color viewing of the underwater environment by the user. Many other companies are currently following suit with the adoption of this type of lens material. You may still find masks with lenses made from various plastics and while those using what are called polycarbonate lenses may prove more resistant to shattering, they are still more prone to scratches and scuffs than are the tempered glass designs.


The metal band clamps which were used to connect the mask skirt to the lens fled the snorkeling scene with the introduction of lighter weight plastics. Since plastic could be molded into various shapes more attention could be addressed with the field of view that then mask provided. For more information on this subject be sure to read our article on 'What is 'Field of View' on a Mask. Frames for the lenses began to be made which allowed masks to be
constructed with multiple lens configurations. Lenses could be could into more interesting shapes. It also introduced masks whose lenses could be removed and replaced with diopter or prescription lenses for vision correction.

These are but a few of what could be considered the major evolutionary stages that brought what began as a simple swim goggle to the highly sophisticated styles that are found today. Changes in accessories of the mask as well as buckles are far to numerous to adequately expound up in this article. The advice to be given when you are researching those aspects is to take the time necessary to read the various descriptions of the masks which will highlight these features as well as take a moment to read Masks-Selecting the Right One for further information.