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!