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The history of contact lenses

The history of contact lenses

Contact lenses, for many of us, are an everyday essential item that allows us to see freely. However, many people were unable to experience this medical invention until it eventually became the go-to eyecare product that over 150 million of us use today. From an initial concept to different functional prototypes, scroll down to learn how contact lenses were first invented and developed over time.

How were contact lenses invented?

1500’s

1508 - The first idea of the contact lens began in 1508 where Leonardo da Vinci wrote the ‘Codex of the Eye’. This book/manuscript discussed the possibility of submerging a person's head in a glass bowl of water to correct certain vision issues. From this, he went on to create a glass lens with a large funnel, which featured one side for pouring water inside. Although very unsuitable and unsuccessful, this later paved the way for contact lens development.

1600’s

1633 - Mathematician Rene Descartes suggested a lens at the end of a water-filled tube, placed on the cornea.  This invention didn’t allow for blinking and had to be held continuously to the eye, therefore, it was very impractical. However, this new method meant placing a lens directly on the cornea, as opposed to the entire eyeball. This was so far the closest invention to today’s contact lenses.

1800’s

1801 - In 1801, Thomas Young, an English scientist created a prototype based on Descartes’ original design and attached water-filled lenses to his eyes using wax. He observed that this blurred his vision but with another set of lenses his vision could be corrected.

1823 - English astronomer Sir John Herschel further helped to develop the contact lens design. He proposed the idea of grinding and fitting a glass contact lens to fit the surface of the cornea as close as possible. He suggested using a physical mold of the eye, allowing for different lenses to fit individuals eyes’ properly. Herschel also suggested using a gel filling between the glass cornea and lens to prevent damage to the eye.

1887 - Around this time, the creation of contact lenses began to progress further due to advancements in lens-grinding and medical anaesthesia. Glass contact lenses during this time were designed however to only protect diseased eyes and not to correct vision. The use of glass lenses was still impractical as they did not attach properly to the eye and sometimes interfered with the eyes’ natural lubrication. Moreover, the use of glass lenses posed many potential risks to the eye. This indicated that the development of contact lenses still had a while to go before completion.

1900’s

1936 - William Feinbloom created a plastic scleral lens in 1936. This helped to revolutionize the lenses industry as they were now lightweight and did not pose as many risks to the eye as glass did. However, these lenses covered the entire eye, meaning that they could only be worn for short periods of time.

1948 - In 1948, the corneal lens was finally created - by accident! When English optical technician Kevin Touhy sanded down a plastic lens, the scleral part of the contact lens fell off. The remaining plastic lens was only big enough to cover the cornea and after trying it on Touhy found that the lens was able to remain in place while blinking. This meant that the surface area of the plastic lens was reduced to allow for greater comfort, eye movement and natural lubrication.

1960 - Czech chemist Otto Wichterle and his colleague Drahoslav Lim refined the process of casting hydrogel which resulted in softer contact lenses that were much more effective and comfortable compared to the previous use of hard plastic lenses. This was a massive breakthrough in creating the first hydrogel lenses as they absorbed up to 40% of water, which was also transparent and could be moulded into a comfortable lens shape. Using Wichterle son’s toy building kit at home, he was able to produce the first four hydrogel lenses. This allowed for contact lenses users to wear their lenses throughout the day with relative comfort.

1971 - As the hydrogel framework for contact lenses was improved upon, approval was gained from the U.S Food and Drug Administration to sell soft hydrogel lenses. A decade later and the release of extended wear soft lenses were introduced which were lenses allowed to be worn overnight.

1987 - Finally, by 1987 disposable soft contact lenses were released and this development helped to overcome hygiene problems as it allowed contact lens wearers to dispose of their lenses straight after use. This became a huge success and remains the most popular type of contact lenses used to this day.

Although looking back at historic concepts of glass-filled tubes that we may find unconventional today, without these experiments we would not have been able to come to the advancement of contact lenses we have today. We can thank those such as da Vinci and Descartes for the origin of contact lenses that has allowed scientists and medical advancements to develop the contact lenses that we use today. For many of us, contact lenses are comfortable and convenient ways of allowing us to live our lives with excellent vision and therefore for them, we have a lot to be thankful for.

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