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The Surprising History of Contact Lenses

2012 September 20
by cnapple

Contact lenses have been with us for longer than you might think. Throughout history their design has been tweaked and revamped again and again, to bring us the high-tech, flexible, comfortable, lenses we wear today. They’re easier than ever to purchase too, thanks to sites like LensWay where you can order your prescription and have them delivered straight to your door. But lenses weren’t always this accessible, or wearable.

Believe it or not, the credit for first coming up with the idea of contact lenses goes to the Italian inventor, artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci! He first made sketches of a contact lens-style idea in his Codex of the Eye, Manual D, all the way back in 1508. However, his experiments in altering the eye’s corneal power by submerging it in water were less to do with inventing the contact lens, and more to do with his interest in studying the mechanisms of the eye itself.

The next great mind to come up with a contact lens-style innovation was the mathematician René Descartes. In 1636, he proposed a glass tube contraption, filled with liquid, which would be placed in direct contact with the cornea. The protruding end was to be composed of clear glass, shaped to correct vision. There was a major stumbling block to overcome here however, in that the tube made it physically impossible to blink!

Real progress didn’t emerge until the 19th century. In 1827, English astronomer Sir John Herschel came up with the idea of making a mould of the wearer’s eyes so that contact lenses could be made to conform perfectly to the eye’s surface. However, we would have to wait 60 years for this idea to be put into practical use.

In 1887, German glassblower F.A. Muller used Herschel’s ideas to create the first known glass contact lens. Then in Paris, the Swiss physician A.E. Fick and French optician Edouard Kalt actually fitted the first glass contact lenses to correct nearsightedness and farsightedness.

These 19th century lenses were incredibly heavy, and large too, covering the entire front surface of the eye. Their weight and size meant that they could only be worn for a few hours at most.

All of this changed with the new century, as the discovery of hard plastics made it possible to reduce the contact lens in scale. In 1948, California optician Kevin Tuohy began manufacturing the first contact lenses to be made completely out of plastic.

From the 1950s onwards, hard plastic contact lenses were gradually made smaller and thinner, going on to become the same hard lens designs that are still in use today.

Soft lenses were much harder to create, with designers struggling to construct lenses that were soft, yet comfortable to wear. Credit here goes to the Czechoslovakian chemist Otto Wichterle who, in the 1950s, experimented with a soft, water-absorbing plastic called hydroxyethyl methacrylate. His work would enable a Dr. Wichterle, suing only his son’s erector set and bicycle parts, to create the spin-casting machine that would produce the world’s first soft contact lenses in 1961.

Nowadays, 90% of lenses worn are soft lenses, and the redesign of lenses has not abated yet. Contact lens designers today are looking into high-definition lenses, ‘superfocus’ lenses and auto-focus lens technologies that could transform contacts for us once more.

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