LOS ANGELES — At his kitchen table, orthodontist Bob Smith tried to solve a problem that dogged him on the ski slopes in the early 1960s by using dental tools and foam to fashion prototypes of fog-resistant goggles.
As he developed what is commonly called the modern ski goggle, he often traded early versions of the eyewear for lift tickets.
His were the first to feature a sealed thermal lens and breathable foam venting, according to Smith Optics, the company he founded in 1965 in Ketchum, Idaho, to manufacture them.
Smith died April 18 at his home in La Quinta, Calif., of complications following surgery to implant a pacemaker, said a son, Drew. He was 78.
The idea for an improved goggle first occurred to Smith while he was serving as an Army dentist in the late 1950s in Germany and skiing in Austria on weekends.
“In skiing powder, snow would get inside the goggles through the vent holes, and the humidity would go way up, and, with a single lens … the thing got foggy,” Smith told Powder magazine in 1981.
Smith’s design added an outer lens that stopped the cold-air transmission, giving the inner lens a chance to warm up. The addition of foam made the goggles more comfortable and allowed for breathability while keeping out the snow, his son said.
To test his goggles, Smith split his time in the late 1960s between his orthodontic practice and the slopes, according to the 1969 documentary “The Last of the Ski Bums,” which shows him coasting through powder in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
“He invented the goggles out of necessity so he could see, himself, because he so loved skiing,” his son said. “The rest of us just got to benefit from it.”
Robert Earl Smith was born May 12, 1933, in San Carlos, Calif., to railroad executive Earl Smith and his wife, Irene.
While attending Stanford University, Smith learned to ski. During his third year of study, he was recruited to attend dental school in San Francisco. After graduating, he served in the military before establishing an orthodontic practice in 1960 in Marin County, Calif.
Four years later he married. He and his wife, Jean, soon wintered in Alta, Utah, where ski enthusiast Smith was reminded of the pressing need for more efficient skiing eyewear.
With the help of his wife and dental students, he glued together the goggles that led him to start Smith Optics and eventually close his dental practice.
Smith Optics is the leading U.S. retailer of snow goggles with 35 percent of the market, said Scott Jaeger, an analyst with Leisure Trends Group, which monitors outdoor equipment sales. The company also makes sunglasses and other outdoor-related products.
“Dr. Bob,” as Smith’s friends called him, ushered in 2012 by skiing on New Year’s Day in Sun Valley, Idaho, with son Drew.
Smith is also survived by his wife, Jean; another son, Colby; and four grandchildren. Another son, Carter, died in 1987.
After Smith sold his company in 1991, he and his wife traveled extensively. As a private pilot, he saw the “world his way,” his family said, “fast!”
© 2012 the Los Angeles Times