The History of Contact Lenses

When you think about contact lenses, you probably don’t think about wearing a bowl of water on your head. Strangely enough, that’s how the concept of contact lenses began. In 1508, Italian inventor, architect, and mathematician Leonardo da Vinci hypothesized that by submerging your head in a bowl of water you could alter your vision. Although contact lenses weren’t ‘invented’ until nearly 400 years later, many believe da Vinci’s somewhat eccentric idea was what inspired their development.

From da Vinci to Descartes

Since da Vinci’s ideas for contact lenses were deemed impractical they were quickly discarded, until over a century later. In 1636, after reviewing da Vinci’s work, French scientist René Descartes proposed another idea. Instead of submerging your head into a bowl of water, why not place a glass tube filled with liquid in direct contact with the cornea? (This is where the term “contact lens” was born, since the lenses came in direct contact with the wearer’s eye.) Although Descartes’ invention worked to enhance vision, using the device made blinking impossible. Unfortunately, improvements in the design of contact lenses wouldn’t be seen until nearly two centuries later.

Sir John Herschel

In 1823, British astronomer John Herschel conceptualized practical lens design; instead of a one-size-fits all solution, Herschel suggested that an actual mold of the cornea be used to manufacture contact lenses. This way, lenses would be unique to an individual’s eyes. While his suggestions were theoretically sound they were still problematic. The practical applications were too difficult to overcome and he was unable to test his hypothesis without the necessary technology. His idea lay dormant for about sixty years, when the first contact lenses manufactured from glass were produced.

Adolf Fick, Eugene Cult, August Mueller

In the early 1880s, glass contact lenses that fit the anterior of the eye were invented by Adolf Fick, Eugene Cult, and August Mueller, independently. These lenses, referred to as scleral lenses, covered the entire eye and were described by Dr. Fick as having refractive power, protecting the eye, and improving vision. Although Dr. Fick constructed and fitted the first successful contact lens, there were two major issues with his lenses: they were made from heavy blown glass and were 18-21 mm in diameter. The weight was uncomfortable and, since they covered the entire eye, wearers experienced excruciating pain after only a few hours of wear. Nonetheless, they remained the standard for the next sixty years.

Theodore Obrig and Kevin Touhy

In the 1930s, the availability of plastic produced lenses that were lightweight and transparent. They were chemically consistent, unbreakable, scratch resistant, and easy to manufacture. In 1937, Theodore Obrig developed a manufacturing technique for making plastic lenses that fit the patient’s cornea. Expanding on this idea, the first corneal contact lens was introduced in 1947 by Kevin Touhy. These lenses were easier to wear, more attractive, and not easily dislodged or lost. These were the standard until the introduction of soft contact lenses in 1971.

Bausch & Lomb

The commercial introduction of soft contact lenses in 1971 is attributed to Bausch & Lomb, a popular manufacturer of contact lenses to this day. Being thinner and more comfortable than hard contacts, the introduction of soft contact lenses sparked a revolution. Today, about 90 percent of contact lenses sold in the United States are soft contact lenses. The development of contact lenses continues to evolve. Since the 1970s, contact lens wearers have seen the introduction of extended wear and overnight contact lenses, disposable lenses, soft contacts intended to change eye color, and silicone hydrogel contact lenses, among others.

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