A brief history of contact lenses

Wednesday, 18 January 2023 by Vision Direct

Wearing contact lenses is very common these days. Many people are happy that they do not have to wear glasses every day but can experience the convenience of contact lenses. Yet you may wonder: When were contact lenses actually invented and by whom? Read on to find out.

The 16th Century

Leonardo da Vinci

The famous Italian inventor Leonardo da Vinci was the first to come up with a concept that resembled a contact lens. Da Vinci made sketches of a possible solution for correcting refractive errors that cause poor eyesight. He showed in these sketches how we could solve sight problems by looking through the bottom of a glass bowl filled with water. Submerging your face in a bowl of water is, of course, a rather impractical way to see clearly, but it proved that he understood the concept of how the contact lens works.

The 17th Century

The French philosopher René Descartes developed da Vinci’s concept further. In an essay, he described the effects of using a test tube filled with water to achieve a result similar to Da Vinci. In this essay, Descartes explained that the water only had to touch the cornea rather than the entire eye. His idea of ​​using a test tube instead of a bowl of water was simpler than Da Vinci had suggested, but of course, it still wasn't a very practical solution.

Thomas Young

The 19th Century

Scientist Thomas Young put Descartes' ideas into practice by making lenses using his proposed technique. He reduced the length of the tubes to make a lens about a quarter the size. He used wax to glue the tubes to his eyes. As expected, this didn't catch on as a new trend!

Another British scientist, John Herschel, had an idea closer to the contact lenses we know today. He made molds of the human eye and then used these molds to design the front of corrective lenses. His idea became a reality later that century. It is disputed who was the first to make the first glass contact lens. Both F.A. Mueller and Adolf E. Fick are credited as the inventors. But whoever it was, both prototypes were made of glass and covered the entire front surface of the eye.

While these lenses were useful for correcting vision, they did cause problems. These glass lenses felt quite heavy on the eye and they covered the entire eye so no moisture could get to the eye to hydrate it. In addition, glass is not very permeable to oxygen anyway, so this design made for an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous contact lens.

The 20th Century

American optometrist William Feinbloom developed a contact lens that combined glass and plastic. A glass portion covered the cornea while a plastic shell sat on the white of the eye (sclera). Not only was this a lighter lens with better oxygen permeability, but the plastic was also better for the natural tissues of the eye than glass. This made the lens a lot more comfortable.

Kevin Touhy took lens design to the next level. His lenses were small and made of a non-porous plastic called polymethyl methacrylate. The lenses moved during blinking, allowing more oxygen to enter the eye and allowing the lens to be worn longer without irritating.

Thanks to this comfortable lens, contact lenses became a lot more popular in the 1950s and 1960s. And as its popularity increased, the technology used to make the lenses became more sophisticated.

A smiling woman puts in a contact lens

Czech chemist Otto Wichterle made a huge breakthrough in making the first hydrogel lenses. Together with his colleague Drahoslav Lim, they created a material that absorbed up to 40% water, which was also transparent and could be moulded into a comfortable lens shape. Fun fact: using his son's toy construction kit, Wichterle produced the first four hydrogel lenses.

As production technology became more advanced, contact lenses became thinner and thinner. In the early 1970s, Bausch & Lomb released the first commercial soft contact lenses made of hydrogel lenses. Later, multifocal lenses and toric lenses for presbyopia and astigmatism came on the market.

Daily contact lenses were introduced in the 1980s, which changed the way people viewed contact lenses. Dailies became more convenient and hygienic to use. Spectacle wearers who would not normally wear lenses could now wear lenses for special occasions or during sports.

During the 1980s, there was also progress in the materials used for contact lenses. For example, extended-wear lenses came to the market. Contact lenses had become so light, with high water content and very oxygen permeable, that under the guidance of an optician, they could even be worn at night while sleeping.

A blue background with two contact lenses on it

The 21st Century

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, silicone hydrogel became the most popular material for making lenses. This material allows up to 5 times more oxygen to pass through to the eye. Lenses made of silicone hydrogel contact lenses absorb even more water than hydrogel lenses. This means that lenses are very flexible and fit well on the eyes. Daily contact lenses made of silicone hydrogel have become increasingly popular because these lenses are so easy and hygienic to use.

Present day and the future

Contact lens technology has continued to evolve with new materials such as Comfilcon A. Comfilcon A is a silicone hydrogel material. For example, it is used in the production of the popular Biofinity lenses. Comfilcon A contact lenses are soft and flexible. They fit perfectly on the eye and therefore feel very comfortable.

And in the future, so-called 'smart contact lenses' may come onto the market. For example, lenses in the future may have a special function that allows them to zoom in on objects or make texts easier to read. Several tech companies are also developing contact lenses that can deliver medicines via the eye. Who knows what else may be in store for the future of contact lenses!

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