Contact lenses are incredibly popular nowadays, but have you ever thought about their origins?
As you’ll discover below, the development of contact lenses is a fascinating story filled with inspiration, perseverance – and timing.
The Da Vinci Codex
Go back more than 500 centuries to the year 1508 where contact lenses were first born.
The same year that Leonardo da Vinci introduced the concept of contact lenses in his Codex of the eye, Manual D.
In the book, he sketched ideas for vision correction through a contact lens/water combination. It’s believed that his inspiration for these ideas was from noticing a person’s vision could be corrected by immersing their head in a bowl of water. Not the best, or recommended way to correct your vision.
Sadly, his idea was totally impractical at the time of invention, and remained nothing more than a concept for some time to come.
First Glimpses of a Clearer Future
It wasn’t until 1636 that another idea for contact lenses was proposed.
This time, it was René Descartes who suggested that a glass tube filled with liquid placed in direct contact with the cornea could be used to correct impaired vision.
However, his concept was flawed, as the device prevented patients from blinking.
Luckily, the idea of correcting vision through contact lenses was not forgotten.
In 1887, German glassblower by the name of F. E. Muller succeeded in producing the world’s first eye covering to be seen through and tolerated.
One year later, German ophthalmologist Adolf Gaston Eugen Fick became the first person to fit contact lenses. His initial test fittings were made on rabbits, then himself, and then on a small group of volunteers.
Fick’s lenses were made from heavy blown glass and measured 18–21 mm in diameter. To prevent abrasion of the eyes, he used a dextrose solution between the cornea and glass.
While Fick’s lenses succeeded in correcting myopia, unfortunately, they were cumbersome. Additionally, they could only be worn for up to 2 hours at a time.
Contact Lenses Come of Age
Let’s jump forward to the 20th Century.
The time when science and technology saw rapid advancements in all areas. Included in this powerful trend was the development of comfortable and practical contact lenses.
Shortly after World War II, in 1949, the first ‘corneal’ lenses were developed. Much smaller than earlier lenses, they could be worn up to an impressive 16 hours per day.
As you can imagine, these lenses proved to be hugely popular throughout the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
However, the lenses did have one major disadvantage. Namely, they failed to allow any oxygen to reach the conjunctiva and cornea. This serious downside had the potential to lead to adverse clinical effects in patients.
The late 1970s and early ’80s saw the introduction of oxygen-permeable contact lenses. While these were ‘rigid’ or ‘hard’ lenses, soft contact lenses were also evolving and gaining in oxygen permeability. Furthermore, it’s worth noting the contribution of British optometrist Rishi Agarwal, who in 1972, suggested the idea of disposable soft contact lenses.
This section wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the release of the first silicone hydrogel contact lenses by Ciba Vision in 1998. These lenses offered such high oxygen permeability and comfort, that opticians were allowed to prescribe them for extended (overnight) use.
A Simple, but Revolutionary Idea
Millions of people around the world benefit daily from wearing contact lenses.
Glasses are not always convenient, especially in terms of high-impact sports such as basketball and rugby. And not everyone likes their personal appearance when wearing glasses.
Fortunately, contact lenses are now so advanced that wearers find them incredibly comfortable and easy to use. Contact lenses can also be so thin that they are practically invisible to other people.
They can also be fun and fashionable. Many people choose coloured contact lenses that emphasis their natural eye colour – or even dramatically change it!
Next time you put in your lenses, take a moment to remember the creative endeavours of the many people who have helped develop them. Their work has helped transform the lives of millions.