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History Of Contact Lenses
Medically reviewed by Tina Patel on 24 January 2023
Contact lenses have been through many developments over the last 500 years, increasing in comfort, convenience and clarity. The history of contact lenses is just as fascinating as the current technology being used to make contact lenses more comfortable to wear.
Who invented contact lenses?
It is difficult to give one person all the credit for inventing contact lenses as the device has gone through many developments, however a major breakthrough in soft lenses was the brainchild of Czech chemists Otto Wichterle and Drahoslav Lím, who published their work "Hydrophilic gels for biological use" in the journal Nature in 1959.
Here is a timeline of each major development in the history of contact lenses, some of which may surprise you.
In his ‘Codex of the eye’, inventor Leonardo Da Vinci described a method that could alter corneal power by wearing a water-filled glass over the eye or submerging the head in a bowl of water. It is thought to be the first recorded attempt to introduce the idea of contact lenses, although it’s thought he was not interested in correcting vision, rather learning about accommodation of the eye, or how the eye moves between different distances.
French philosopher René Descartes proposed to use a glass tube filled with liquid, which would be placed in direct contact with the cornea. The protruding end would be made of clear glass. Intended for vision correction, it ultimately couldn’t be used as it made blinking impossible.
Based on Descartes’ model, in 1801, Thomas Young made a basic pair of contact lenses. Using wax, he affixed water-filled lenses to his eyes, neutralising its refractive power. Like Da Vinci’s model, Young’s creation was not designed to correct refractive errors.
In a footnote of the 1845 edition of the Encyclopedia Metropolitana, Sir John Herschel proposed two concepts for visual correction. The first; "a spherical capsule of glass filled with animal jelly", and the second "a mould of the cornea". He theorised that these could be impressed on "some sort of transparent medium". While Herschel did not further develop or test his ideas, they were later taken up and advanced by other inventors.
The German glassblower F.E. Müller produced an eye covering that could be tolerated by the eye, however, it was not yet perfected. He tested them on rabbits before wearing them himself, then invited a group of volunteers to test them too. In March 1888, he published his work, ‘Contactbrille’, in the journal ‘Archiv für Augenheilkunde’.
Louis J. Girard developed scleral lenses.
When were contact lenses invented?
In 1888 Adolf Gaston Eugen Fick successfully fitted the first blown contact lens, which was made using blown glass. These glass lenses could only be worn for a few hours as they were almost twice the size of modern-day lenses.
August Müller in Kiel, Germany, corrected his own severe myopia (-14 dioptre to within 0.50 dioptre) with a more comfortable and convenient glass-blown scleral contact lens of his own manufacture. Müller's lenses were lighter in comparison to those developed by Fick and shaped to match the curved contour of the cornea.
Dallos, along with István Komáromy, developed and perfected a method of using moulds created from actual living eyes. This moved forward the manufacturing of lenses that, for the first time, conformed to the shape of an eye.
Up until this point, scleral glass blown lenses remained the only form of contact lens. The development of polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA or Perspex/Plexiglas) changed this. For the first time, plastic lenses could be produced. It was optometrist William Feinbloom who introduced these. Lighter, more comfortable and convenient, they were a mixture of glass and plastic.
German optometrist Heinrich Wöhlk produced plastic lenses, based on experiments performed during the 1930s. Kevin Tuohy filed a patent for the first corneal lens design in 1948.
Czech chemists Otto Wichterle and Drahoslav Lím introduced modern soft hydrogel lenses. They published their work "Hydrophilic gels for biological use" in the journal Nature in 1959.
The National Patent Development Corporation in the United States purchased the rights to produce soft lenses, but sublicensed them to Bausch & Lomb.
Soft lenses are approved for sale in the USA by the Food and Drug Administration.
British optometrist Rishi Agarwal conceives the first disposable soft contact lenses.
An increase in oxygen permeability and the clinical performance of hydrogels meant more comfort for contact lens wearers.
The first multifocal soft contact lens became available within the same year.
The history of contact lenses is long, fascinating and full of incredible breakthroughs. Message us on Twitter @feelgoodcontact and tell us what surprised you most about the history of contact lenses.
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