The invention of contact lenses
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Although you might think that contact lenses are a new technology, they got their start in 1508 when Italian inventor and mathematician Leonardo da Vinci came up with the first known sketches. Da Vinci’s sketches suggested that if the cornea came in direct contact with water, you could alter the optics of the eye.
These were just sketches, however, and actual contact lenses were not invented until later when da Vinci’s sketches eventually helped to develop contact lenses some 350 years later.
In 1827, English astronomer Sir John Herschel came up with the idea to make a mold of the human eye. He thought the molds would help to produce corrective lenses that could conform to the front surface of the eye. His idea was not put into production until 50 years later. Although we are not sure who was the first to produce this type of lens.
Some believe it was a German glassblower named F.A. Muller. In 1887, he used Herschel’s ideas to make a glass contact lens. While others believe credit should go to Adolf E. Fick and Edouard Kalt, who worked together to create and fit the first glass lens in 1888.
Regardless of who should get the credit, the lenses were very heavy and large, covering the entire eye, including the sclera. Eyes need to “breathe,” and these large lenses limited the oxygen supply to the eyes, so people could only wear them for a short time. Because of this, they were not very popular.
An optometrist from New York named William Feinbloom pioneered the sclera lens in 1936. This new lens was made up of glass and plastic, which made them much lighter than their glass-blown counterparts.
It wasn’t until 1948, however, that contact lenses as we know them were introduced. An optician from California named Kevin Tuohy made all plastic lenses that were called “corneal contact lenses.” These lenses were small enough to only cover the cornea, making it easier for the eyes to “breathe” so that people could wear them for longer periods of time.
These lenses were made up of a hard plastic called PMMA—polymethyl methacrylate. These hard lenses were designed so they could move each time a wearer would blink. This allowed the eye to get more oxygen, as the PMMA was not gas permeable.
If properly fitted, these new corneal PMMA lenses would be worn 16 hours or longer. These lenses became very popular in the 1950s and 60s because of the advances that were made in manufacturing and the fact that doctors were getting better at fitting them properly.
One of the best advancements in contact lenses came in 1959 when Czech chemists Drahoslay Lim and Otto Wichterle designed contact lenses that were made of a softer hydrophilic hydrogel. Their discovery was the first soft contact lens to be approved by the FDA—U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Because they were so much more comfortable than hard PMMA lenses, soft contacts grew in popularity. More than 90% of the lenses sold in the U.S. are soft lenses. However, rigid gas permeable lenses have very good oxygen permeability and give wearers sharper vision than soft lenses, proving that comfort is important in the choice of contact lens wearers.