The History of Contact Lenses


Contact lenses have revolutionized the way we think about and deal with vision problems. Of course, they weren’t invented overnight. In fact, it’s taken a whopping 500+ years to get to the technology to where it is today! In this piece we take a stroll down memory lane to discuss how the grand idea of a wearable lens that would correct poor vision slowly morphed into the modern day contact lenses we’ve all come to know.

The Inital Stages of the Contact Lens

The first known idea of contact dates way back to the very early 1500s, when Leonardo da Vinci first sketched his genius idea for contact lenses. That’s right, not only did he paint the incredibly famous works like the Mona Lisa and Vitruvian Man but he is, in a way, the forefather of what we know today at contact lenses. To be fair, da Vinci was certainly not just a painter—he was an inventor, mathematician, sculptor and more, a true Renaissance man.

His idea sprung from the notion that when you stick your head underwater things look different. He then speculated that by creating a device worn on the head that held water, you could alter vision. It’s worth noting that there’s no indication that he considered this an option for correcting vision.


Da Vinci’s famous contact lens sketch, “Codex of the Eye”

Da Vinci may have planted a seed for contact lenses, but it would take another hundred years for it to grow. Enter Rene Descartes, famous French philosopher, mathematician and scientist. Using da Vinci’s concept, he came up with the idea to actually place an artificial lens over the eyeball to improve vision. His piece still had some major flaws to be worked out—like how to blink when wearing the lens, but still, the seed had started growing!

It seemed the world had gone quiet for the next two hundred years concerning the would-be great invention, until Thomas Young, English polymath, became interested in the idea and put some new life into earlier concepts. He even took it so far as to create the first pair of contact lenses, which were water-filled and affixed to the eyeball with some wax. It may not have corrected vision, but it was a great step in the right direction. Young made other important discoveries in the vision field, such as correctly identifying astigmatism.

Da Vinci’s seed had certainly grown a good deal, but it began budding in the 1820’s, when Sir John Herschel suggested creating a lens that was actually fitted to the eyeball with the purpose of improving vision. He suggested using animal jelly inside the lens, which is well, inventive… Unfortunately he couldn’t actually test his theory due to the difficulty in creating a mold of the highly sensitive cornea.

The First Contact Lens

A mere fifty years later an idea materialized in the form of the very first contact lens that fit over the eyeball. It was made of glass (ouch). The creator of the actual first contact lens was a German ophthalmologist named Adolf Gaston Eugen Flick. Fun fact: it was first tested on a rabbit!

While Flick’s invention was a huge win in the history of contact lenses, they were uncomfortable—to the point of causing pain, which made them impractical. Luckily, by the 1930’s scientists had created a lens with plastic, which was much more lightweight than Flick’s heavy brown glass. The downside to these lenses is that they still covered the entire eyeball, which prevented oxygen from flowing into the eye. Due to this they could only be worn for a few hours at a time. Luckily, another ten years later a lens was created that was much smaller, covering only the cornea. These are known today as gas permeable lenses. These lenses allowed oxygen to seep into the eye due to a slight movement that occurred each time the wearer blinked—which is still a very important concept in modern lenses.

The Modern Contact Lens

Contact lens hit another stride in the 1970’s when Otto Wichterle and Drahoslav Lim, Czech scientists, invented soft lenses. These were much more comfortable to wear, making contact lenses super popular among the public. Contact lenses are still an ever-improving invention. Disposables, bifocals, and silicone hydrogel lens are just some of the many advancements that have occurred in the wonderful world of contacts. They’re an ever-evolving technology, which is great for us wearers!



The History of Contact Lenses

contact-lens-eye-640x353Imagine this; the year is 1888. As you walk around town you suddenly realize that you cannot read a single sign in the windows and have difficulty seeing farther than 40 feet away…you shudder when you think of the weight and discomfort glasses. However, luckily for you, there’s a new product available: contact lenses!

Indeed, the contact lens actually has quite a long and thoroughly developed history. In fact, the idea of the contact lens can be attributed to Leonardo da Vinci in his 1508 writing The Codex of the Eye, Manual D where he mentions altering corneal power by “wearing a water-filled glass hemisphere over the eye.” Another similar, but impractical idea was proposed by Rene Descartes in 1636 and in 1801 Thomas Young produced a prototype based on Descartes’ idea but it failed to fully correct vision and still required glasses. It wasn’t until 1845 that John Herschel presented an idea for contact lenses that would become the foundation of the modern contact lens, starting a chain of events that would revolutionize the way we see the world.

1887: F.E. Muller creates the first glass-blown contact lens that can be seen worn, seen through, and tolerated. However, there is no indication this lens provided any vision correction.

1888: A German ophthalmologist named Adolf Fick made and fitted true contact lenses out of heavy blown glass that were about 18mm thick. However, because these lenses were so large and uncomfortable they could only be worn for a few hours at a time. Also, the glass did not allow ANY oxygen to the eye.

William Feinbloom

1936: With the development of Plexiglass; William Feinbloom was able to create scleral contact lenses out of a combination or plastic and glass for a model that was lighter and exponentially more convenient than its predecessors.
1947-1949: Though the exact date is not nailed down, it is generally agreed that during this time period the first corneal contact lenses were developed. They sat on the cornea as opposed to the entire eye and were made entirely of plastic so they are infinitely more comfortable, enabling them to be utilized for up to 16 hours at a time. However, unlike many of today’s adaptations, oxygen was unable to permeate the eye.

1960’s-1970: This decade saw the advent of the rigid-gas permeable lens which maintained the rigidness of the full plastic lenses while allowing oxygen to reach the eye. These RGP lenses are still useful today in certain applications. (Development in comfort and usability continues today for RGP lenses).

1971: The first hydrogel material was approved by the FDA in the USA for use in contact lenses. Lenses made of “Soflens” were the first soft contacts in the USA —these lenses quickly exceeded RGP lenses in popularity due to their comfort and ease of use.

1972: The concept of disposable soft contact lenses was suggested for the first time.

1998: The soft contact lens was revolutionized with the development of silicone hydrogel. These newer lenses combined the performance of soft contact lenses with the incredible oxygen permeability of silicone.

2498775934_4a6a4e451a_b2014: Almost all soft lenses available today are made of silicone hydrogel. Contact manufacturers continue to develop ways of adding molecules to the silicone hydrogel to improve comfort, like the internal wetting molecules featured by such prominent brands as Acuvue.

Not many people realize that contact lenses have as long a history of steady advancement as they do; and all this development certainly benefits the consumer. Recent developments have enabled those with astigmatism to wear contacts, as well as cosmetic possibilities that temporarily change the color of the iris. Browse our selection of contact lenses to celebrate the latest advances in sight enhancement today.

Interesting Historical Facts About Contact Lenses

The original idea for contact lenses dates all the way back to sketches created by the brilliant Leonardo da Vinci. Half a millennium ago, the genius inventor mapped out plans for altering the refractive power of the eye. Later on, others experimented with modifying refractive powers by looking through both glass and water. And, finally, 120 years ago, German inventors became the first to make a genuine contact lens that fitted on the eye. Those primitive contact lenses, called scleral lenses, were constructed of glass, and they draped over the sclera, or white part, of the eye, as well as covering the cornea.

Though we’ve come a long way from these more primitive models, these early models laid the groundwork for modern day contact lenses.