We often take modern luxuries that make our lives more comfortable for granted. Contact lenses have gone through major development over the last 500 years, increasing in comfort, convenience and clarity with each new development.
Here is a timeline of each development, some of which may surprise you.
In his ‘Codex of the eye’, 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 the mechanisms of accommodation of the eye.
French philosopher 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 Joh Herschel proposed two concepts for visual correction. The first; "a spherical capsule of glass filled with animal jelly", and the second "a mold 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 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 a scleral form of contact lens.
Adolf Gaston Eugen Fick successfully fitted the first blown contact lens, which was made using blown glass, although it could only be worn for a few hours due to its size – 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 molds 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.
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.
Ciba Vision in Mexico released the first silicone hydrogel 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 was also made available within the same year.