The History of Contact Lenses
1508: Contact lenses were “invented” much earlier than one might think. If you can believe it, Leonardo da Vinci developed the concept of vision correction through a contact lens-water combination in 1508 as recorded in his book Codex of the eye, Manual D; an invention that was essentially a contact lens that water could be poured into to correct vision. Read more here
He figured out that when you stick someone with less than perfect vision’s head into a bowl of water, their cornea is affected by the water, and their refractory and peripheral vision improves. Da Vinci’s idea was too impractical for use, however it was the first foray into vision correctment other than glasses and it heavily impacted future thought and research on the topic.
1637: Several other notable inventors such as Rene Descartes (who proposed a water-filled glass tube, as opposed to lens, to be placed on the eye), however this didn’t work out since wearing a tube on your eye, much like Da Vinci’s water funnel lens, is doesn’t work for everyday wear. Who would wear a water filled tube or pour water into a glass lens all day when they could just wear glasses instead?).
1801: Thomas Young recognized the tube and water problem that others had not quite yet fully addressed, and created a glass contact lens surrounded by a brass rim that was filled with water and was affixed to the eyes with wax. Unfortunately, the wax mitigated the positive vision changes caused by the water refracting the light, so he had to put another lens on top of it to see any positive vision change. Read more here
If you can picture someone walking around with glass affixed to their eye with wax and then another layer of glass on top of that, you get the picture of his invention. At this point, we are getting closer to the modern contact, but Young’s invention was still something that no one would want to wear in public.
1827: Sir John Herschel, having the benefit of all this past research, suggested the basis for the modern day lens that would fit the actual surface of the eye. In his words, “a gelatin mold of the eye made with transparent animal jelly”. However we have no evidence he attempted to make any prototypes, so I am not inclined to give his vision much credit to the actual lenses that scientists have developed today.
1887: Finally, F.A. Müller, a fake eye glass blower, blew the first hard glass contact shell that didn’t involve a long tube or continuous supply of water. His glass contact was a protective cover for a patient with eye disease, not a vision corrective lens however.
Adolph Fick tested glass contact shells on bunnies with the goal of correcting Keratoconus, when the eye is too conical, by pushing the eyeball down to make it flatter. His idea worked and he started using the glass lenses on human patients.
Now things were moving faster and Ernst Abbe’s student Carl Zeiss Ltd
1889: August Muller had two goals. He wanted to improve his own vision, and he wanted to write a thesis. He accomplished both with glass contact shells. However the shells became unbearably painful after a half hour of wear, so although they were closer to practically, contacts are still not at the point of everyday use. Read more here
There are two problems with the contacts that have been made up to this point:
1. They are huge, covering even the whites of the eyes, making them unnecessarily large, uncomfortable, and contribute to the second problem.
2. They are made out of solid impermeable glass, which blocks much-needed oxygen from the cornea. Without oxygen, the cornea swells.
1930s: Glass blown lenses stayed until the 1930s when PMMA (Plexiglas) lenses were developed.
Late 1930s: The first color contact lenses were invented! A Metro Goldwyn Meyer (MGM) partnered with a Beverly Hills ophthalmologist to make an actor’s naturally brown eyes blue for a movie.
1939: The first movie to use color contacts was Miracles for Sale. Color contact lenses have since been used in many movies for color affects as well as to simulate blind eyes such as Wait Until Dark starring Audrey Hepburn and scary eyes such as Michael Jackson’s music video Thriller. Read more here
1936: William Feinbloom started making plastic-glass combination lenses.Read more here
1940: Heinrich Wohlk transitioned to the first all-plastic lenses, which were much more comfortable, however the lens still covered the entire eyeball surface.
Like all good discoveries, this one was made by accident, and was the breakthrough in making the first comfortable lenses people could wear for hours at a time. An optical technician, Kevin Tuohy, was washing a contact lens and accidentally broke off the recently added transparent outer lens made to cover the whites of the eyes. He was surprised, but when he tried them on they stayed put! Still not perfect, they had the tendency to pop off and scratch the cornea, but they were a huge step up from the previous models. Read more here
1950-60: Lenses were so expensive and easy-to-break that ‘contact lens insurance’ was common.
1968: The FDA classified contact lenses as a drug. Today you still need a doctor’s prescription to buy contacts.
Many wearers of these lenses developed corneal adema and were not able to tolerate wearing the contacts.Read more here
1970-90: Oxygen permeable contact lenses were developed. Bausch & Lomb’s Soflens was the first soft contact lens sold in the U.S. in 1971.
Otto Wichterle invented Bausch & Lomb’s soft lens, a project he was working on at his previous employer, Czechoslovakia’s Institute of Macromolecular Research, who told him to stop. He kept going, taking his project home and using a child’s mechanical kit to finish the invention! Read more here
1998: Ciba made the first silicone hydrogels, a super oxygen-permeable, comfortable and high performing contact lens. They were originally intended for overnight wear, although contacts since have stopped promoting overnight wear due to safety concerns.
Since then, second and third generation hydrogels have been invented to improve comfort even further by adding molecules that serve as internal wetting agents and have even higher oxygen permeability.
2002: Ciba vision was the first company to sell ‘daily disposable lenses’ Read more here
2004: Acuvue started selling colored contacts. Read more here
Freshlooks and Air Optix also now offer colored contacts, and many imitation brands have followed suit.
Contact research is still evolving and the next 100 years may look back on our current lenses as uncomfortable and impractical as even more advancements are made.