History Of Contact Lenses

History Of Contact Lenses

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Where it all began

How can a bowl of water improve your vision? Well, it’s where the idea of contact lenses began over 400 years ago. Leonardo da Vinci speculated in “Codex of the Eye” in 1508 that one could change their vision by putting their head in a bowl of water. He designed a lens made of glass that had a funnel for pouring water over it, but it looked pretty silly and was not very practical at all.

Later, in 1636, Rene Descartes, a French scientist, built upon Leonardo’s work and came up with the idea of a liquid-filled glass tube directly on the cornea. Although this did help to improve vision in some people, those wearing it could not blink. This design is actually where the name came from—“contact” lenses because the device actually came in contact with the eye. It would be almost 200 years before anyone else tried to improve on Descartes’ design.

Advances in eye care

Finally, in 1801, Thomas Young, the scientist from England who advanced the science of eye care when he described astigmatism, built upon Descartes’ design and made a pair of contact lenses with a smaller glass tube, and he stuck the lenses to his eyes with wax. However, this device did not really correct vision problems and, like the others, was not practical. It would be another 40 years or so before the idea of correcting refraction errors–astigmatism, nearsightedness, and farsightedness–with contact lenses would be suggested.

In 1845, Sir John Herschel hypothesized that vision could be corrected by taking a mold of the cornea to make lenses. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the technology he needed, so he never tested his theory. It would be almost another 100 years before it could be tested.

New technology brings new advancements

Because of new glass technology, contact lenses were revolutionized in the 1880s. Adolf Fick, along with Eugene Cult and Louis J. Girard, began to design thinner contact lenses that would fit on the eye and allow one to blink. In his treatise “A Contact Spectacle,” Fick was the first to illustrate the contact lens with refractive power for visual improvement, so he is usually credited with being the first to discover the technology.

F.A. Mueller, an artificial eye maker, made the first model of contact lenses in 1887. Called sclera lenses, this type of contact did not just cover the cornea, it covered the entire eye. Similar to Da Vinci’s water bowl, the lenses were convex, which allowed the dextrose solution (liquid that corrects vision by creating refractive power) or tears to fill the eye. Fick designed and fitted the first pair of contact lenses in 1888. But, the lenses were 18-21mm in diameter and made from heavy blown glass, which made for uncomfortable wear and the entire exposed eye was covered. This was especially a problem because eyes need oxygen from the air as they are not oxygenated by the blood like other organs, and so with the entire eye covered, the eyes were “suffocating.” After only a short time of use, you would experience severe eye pain. It would, nevertheless, be another 60 years before contact lenses would improve.

Finally, in the 1920s, anesthetic and material technology allowed the ideas that Herschel had about creating molds of the cornea to be tested. Making contact lenses that actually conformed to the eye was possible for the first time in 1929. Dr. Dallos and Istvan Komaromy were able to make molds from actual eyes, which proved Herschel’s theory.




Plastic lenses replace glass lenses

Plastics technology in the 1930s made lightweight and transparent lenses possible. Glass lenses became obsolete because plastic was unbreakable, malleable, resistant to scratches, and easy to manufacture—revolutionizing the industry. Even so, the new plastic lenses covered the entire eye and could only be worn for short periods of time because they were scleral lenses.

Kevin Touhy made an “accidental” discovery in 1948 while he was sanding a plastic lens. The part of the lens that covered the white of the eye fell off, so he just kept working, making a smaller lens. He tried them on himself and they worked—thus, we have the corneal lens we use today. Because of this smaller lens, people could wear them longer because they were more comfortable and their eyes could “breathe.”

Because of this invention, contact lenses began to improve rapidly. A curved design was invented by George Butterfield in 1950, which was more comfortable than the flat design that had been used previously. Then in the 1950s, a thinner lens (.20 mm) was designed by Frank Dickerson, Wilhelm Sohnjes, and John Neil. Eventually leading to thinner lenses (.10 mm) in the 1960s. Although many improvements were made at this time, there was still a need for a lens that did not hinder oxygen flow, and lenses could not be worn for long periods of time.

Modern advances in lenses

A new plastic (hydrogel) was in development in the late 1950s by Otto Wichterle, a chemist from Czechoslovakia. It was soft and pliable and could be molded and shaped. Robert Morrison, an optometrist from the U.S. saw the potential Wichterle’s invention had for contact lenses. When it became available to use, Dr. Morrison set up a manufacturing facility to make soft lenses from hydrogel.


When Bausch and Lomb got ahold of hydrogel in 1960, they made amazing leaps in contact lend manufacturing. They created a refined casting technique, which made lens surfaces more consistent and began mass-producing hydrogel lenses. In 1998, Ciba Vision introduced silicone hydrogel lenses, which greatly improves oxygen permeability, allowing contact lens users to wear lenses for much longer.


Ever since, contact lenses—hard and soft—continue to improve.

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