Most swimmers use center mount snorkels these days. It's a great tool that helps you work on your technique and body position while allowing you not to worry about breathing to the side.
The first time I saw a center mount snorkel used by swimmers was about ten years ago. I didn't know if it had been used before this, so I decided to do a little research about the history of the center mount snorkel. Here is what I found out.
The first official record of a center mount snorkel that I was able to find was a US patent from 1863 that was called " Apparatus for teaching the art of swimming".
I had thought that a center mount snorkel was a recent invention so I was very surprised to discover that somebody actually invented it in 1863. It was 16 years before Edison invented his first incandescent lamp! In other words, swimmers had center mount snorkels before electricity!
The above snorkel was invented by S. Scholfield. It doesn't really look all that different from the snorkels we use today. The concept is the same. Looking at this invention in 2011 you will notice three things that might strike you as odd:
First, the "snorkel to head" attachment mechanism looks bulky and uncomfortable.
Second, the mouth piece had special "pipes" that went inside the swimmer's nostrils. "This mouthpiece, when properly inserted, furnishes a communication with both the mouth and nostrils for the purpose of breathing, the air being received and expelled through the pipe." This nose piece is invasive and looks uncomfortable.
Third, the snorkel was completely straight. It didn't curve back like the modern snorkels. This is a very interesting point because what this straightness indicates is the swimming technique of that time. It appears that people swam looking forward not down as we do now.
Of course, it is easy to criticize such things in 2011 but if you try to imagine yourself in 1863, they might not look as strange as they appear now.
The invention from 1901 tries to solve the "nostrils" problem. Here is the "Appliance for swimmers" by Harry Pratt.
As you can see, there are no more pipes going inside nostrils, instead there is a nose clip that is attached to the snorkel. This makes the snorkel much more comfortable. The "snorkel to head" attachment mechanism is still far from perfect and the straight design is still the same. Most people were probably still swimming looking forward.
Next is the "Device for teaching swimming" invented by George Bead in 1914.
The first thing that you notice is that the "nose piece" is gone and that the snorkel curves back. The swimming technique and the center mount snorkel are evolving. Again, the "snorkel to head" attachment mechanism is still "weak". Also, the mouse piece needs to be improved. Let's see if the next invention addresses these problems.
In 1920 W. Feinberg invented the "Breathing apparatus for swimmers."
Although, the nose piece was temporarily back, the mouth piece was very close to what we have today. This device also improved the "snorkel to head" attachment with the snorkel nicely curved back. This is the first indication that technique changed with swimmers looking down instead of forward. There was an optional float "to insure keeping this end of the tube above the surface of the water." If you remove it, the snorkel will remind you of one of the snorkels that is on the market today (described below).
Initially I wasn't going to include the following invention, but there was one thing that I found interesting. "Swimming instruction device" invented by D. Wayfield in 1958.
This strange looking snorkel that takes curving to the extreme was supposed to teach a person to breath correctly. There was a valve at the top of the snorkel, that would only open and let the air in when you turn the head. It doesn't strike me as a very user friendly snorkel. However, "attached to the hose opposite one ear is a clock-operated mechanism which emits sounds corresponding to the tempo of the desired swimming movement." This was what today is known as a tempo trainer (or a pacer). Apparently, it was already in use in 1958!
Finally, last two snorkels will be familiar to everyone. The first one was designed by Dean Garraffa in 1996 who designed other very cool things like the monofin. He is a co-founder of Atomic Aquatics that makes great products for divers.
This design patent was later assigned to Finis Inc (according to the US patent office). This is the product that a lot of swimmers use today. The new design of the center mount snorkel by D. Garraffa does not have the issues that its predecessors had: nose piece is gone and the head strap is simple and comfortable.
Another familiar looking snorkel, "Arching snorkel" was invented by J. Mix in 2004.
Some people call it a free style snorkel. It's easier to push off the walls with this snorkel than the previous one because it's closer to the head (less drag) but it's harder to use when swimming other, non-freestyle strokes because water gets into the air tube.
A little earlier I mentioned a snorkel from 1920 that reminded me of a snorkel that is used today. The first diagram shows the 1920's version with the optional float whited out. The second diagram shows the 2004 version. See any resemblance? The 1920 snorkel stays closer to the head than the 2004 version, and its mouth attachment includes the nose piece, which is gone from the 2004 snorkel, but the design is very similar overall.
There were many more different types of snorkels invented during the last 150 years, but their improvements were not as strong and, like in any natural evolution, they eventually died out. The snorkels I mention had, in my opinion, the best improvements over their predecessors and were a stepping stone to the modern snorkel. They also illustrate the changes in swimming technique over the past 150 years. People used to swim facing forward and the equipment of the time supports the technique. Not only do we see an evolution of equipment, we get a glimpse at the evolution in swimming.