Unlike eyeglasses, contact lenses are a pretty new invention. Glasses were invented in Italy over 700 years ago. Even gemstones being used for magnification go back as the 1st century.
Contact lenses that cover the cornea have existed for a little more than 60 years. But the concept of contact lenses has a very long history.
the Codex of the Eye
It started in 1508, when Leonardo da Vinci wrote the “Codex of the Eye”. He considered the possibility of putting your head in a glass bowl of water to correct certain vision problems.
Leonardo went on to create a glass lens, with a way to put water into it. The invention was impractical, and it was obvious that the idea was too far ahead of its time.
About 150 years later, mathematician René Descartes suggested an alternate method that was a step closer to modern methods. It was very similar to da Vinci's idea, but it was placed directly on the eye’s cornea.
Descartes’ solution was just as impractical because the tubes required support to rest on the eye, and you couldn't blink naturally. Still, he was the first to suggest placing the lens directly on the cornea.
In 1801, English scientist Thomas Young created a prototype that was based on Descartes designs. Young attached these water-filled lenses to his own eyes with wax and wrote about the results. He observed that the lenses blurred his vision, but could be corrected with another set of lenses. This proved the original principles set out by Leonardo and Descartes, paving the way for more practical designs to develop later on.
English astronomer Sir John Herschel suggested lens grinding and fitting, which pushed the idea of contact lenses further. In 1823, Herschel had the idea of grinding a glass lens to fit the surface of the cornea as close as possible.
Sir John suggested a physical mold of the eye, to allow lens creators to create lenses that fit each wearer. To help prevent damage to the eye, he thought of using a gel filling that would sit between the cornea and lens.
Contact Lenses Become a Reality
As the 19th century moved on, creating contact lenses for the general public became a more visible reality. Glass blowing came around, as well as lens grinding and medical anaesthesia. This meant that a more accurate replication of the eye’s curves was now possible.
In 1887, German artificial glass eye makers F. A. Muller made a transparent contact lens. These early contact lenses weren’t designed to correct vision, but for protecting diseased eyes.
As humans became better at creating the lens, by the start of the 20th century, contact lenses were starting to show more promise in vision correction. The technology was not ready for widespread use however, and the lenses were only occasionally used for specific medical purposes.
It was difficult to properly attach small glass lenses to the eye and larger lenses interrupted natural lubrication. The fact that they were impermeable limited their potential use, requiring constant artificial lubrication. They were also uncomfortable, and the small glass lenses brought dangers to the eye.
Contact lenses, as we know them today, still had a long road ahead.
William Feinbloom was the first one to try plastic in contact lenses in 1936. Plastic lenses couldn't break in the eye, these new light-weight lenses completely changed the industry and blew glass lenses out of the water.
Despite the advantages that plastic brought, the lenses were still scleral lenses. Covering the whole front of the eye, they were only wearable for short periods of time.
In 1948 the corneal lens was finally born – on accident! Kevin Touhy was an English optical technician. He was sanding a plastic lens when the scleral portion of it fell off. The remaining material only covered the cornea but he decided to try wearing it. He was shocked! The far smaller lens was still able to stay in place when looking around and blinking! This changed the history of contact lenses for ever.
The smaller surface area also meant less interference with the eye’s natural lubrication and greater comfort, allowing for longer periods of wear. Various, thinner forms were introduced throughout the ‘50s. But in the 1960s the industry went through a huge shakeup.
The Modern Age of Contact Lenses
In 1960, the process of casting hydrogel was changed. This resulted in soft contact lenses that were immensely more comfortable than their hard plastic counterparts.
The early days of soft contact lenses presented a whole host of new problems. The high water content made them extremely difficult to handle, among other issues. But after almost a decade of improvements, bionite soft lenses were made available. Unlike hard contact lenses, they could be worn throughout the day with comfort by most users.
Over time, the hydrogel used for contact lenses was improved upon. The year 1981 saw the release of extended-wear lenses, which could be worn overnight, again adding to the history of contact lenses.
In 1986, gas permeable extended wear lenses were released. Gas permeable lenses are made of firm, durable plastic that transmits oxygen. Because they have no water content, they're less likely to harbour bacteria than soft contacts.
1987 saw the commercial release of disposable soft contact lenses. These soft lenses overcame hygiene problems by allowing the user to throw them away after wearing.
The disposable contact lens was a huge success, and remains the most popular type to this day. The history of contact lenses and their full development came to a conclusion at this time.
After learning about the history of contact lenses, if you are interested to find out more or need to schedule an appointment, we are here to help.