Like many ingenious inventions, contact lenses were conceived of far, far earlier than the technology necessary for making them actually existed. The history of contact lenses goes back all the way to 1508, when Leonardo da Vinci was first credited with the idea.
It was in the Italian inventor’s 1508 publication, Codex of the Eye, that da Vinci first speculated about submerging one’s head in a bowl of water in order to alter vision. Using this theory, he created a device comprised of a glass lens with a funnel on one side, into which water could be poured. Unfortunately, it was far too impractical, and it never progressed beyond the theoretical stage.
The French scientist René Descartes studied da Vinci’s work and, in 1636, proposed his own version of the modern-day necessity that we all take for granted. His idea was to take a glass tube filled with liquid and put it in direct contact with the cornea – hence the name contact lenses.
Descartes’ invention did enhance vision to some extent, but it made blinking impossible! Contact lenses would not develop into something usable for almost two centuries.
Contact lenses that we might recognise
German ophthalmologist Adolf Gaston Eugen Fick is most often credited with creating the first contact lenses that could be tolerated in 1888, while working in Zurich. He constructed lenses that rested on the rim of tissue around the cornea, and experimentally fitted them, firstly on rabbits, then on himself, and finally on a group of volunteers. But, because the lenses were made from heavy blown glass – measuring around 20mm in diameter – they could only be tolerated for a few hours at once.
By the late 1920s, technological advances finally made it possible to test a theory that the English physicist Sir John Herschel had first hypothesized in the early 1800s: that, by taking a mold of the cornea, one could produce fitted contact lenses that would correct vision.
By the 1930s, plastics had revolutionized the contact lens industry, making it possible to produce contact lenses that were lightweight, transparent, scratch-resistant, malleable – and unbreakable. The material first used was polymethyl methacrylate, which gave rise to the common abbreviation “PMMA”, and the name PMMA lenses. Despite the fact that these new lenses were plastic, they were still based on Fick’s scleral lens model and covered the whole eye, which prevented it from absorbing oxygen, making extended wear impossible.
The discovery in 1948 that smaller lenses were able to stay in place directly over the cornea was monumental in the history of contact lenses. Smaller “corneal lenses” – as they came to be known – allowed people to leave their contacts in for longer periods of time because the eyes could breathe to some extent. Corneal lenses were also far more comfortable than scleral lenses.
PMMA corneal lenses began to gain mass appeal into the 1960s, and lens designs soon became more and more sophisticated as manufacturing technology improved. But, still, the eye required more oxygen for optimal health and, by the end of the 1970s, a range of oxygen-permeable materials – including hydrogel – were developed to address this problem.
Contact lenses are often underappreciated, especially as laser eye surgery and other increasingly sophisticated techniques to correct one’s vision are developed. But, if you’re a contact lens wearer, take a moment to consider how far the near-invisible discs that rest ever so subtly on your eyes have come over the centuries. Contact lenses’ history began with Da Vinci submerging his head in a bowl of water. Who knows how much further it will go?