The History of Contact Lenses

Leonardo da Vinci is credited with being the first person to come up with the idea of contact lenses. He noticed that, when the eye is placed in water, it has an effect on vision; he then made a number of sketches showing different lenses that could be worn on the eye. Although the technology was not available in the sixteenth century for Leonardo to create contact lenses in reality, it is thought that his ideas paved the way for others. In the seventeenth century, the French philosopher René Descartes proposed that a lens placed on the eye could help to correct sight. Later, in 1801, the British physician Thomas Young successfully used Descartes' idea to put together a tube filled with water and a lens, with which he corrected his own vision. In nineteenth-century England, an astronomer called Sir John Herschel devised a lens made of glass which would totally enclose the front of the eye and protect it from infection. The lens required a mold taken from the eye itself. This was not possible at the time, as anesthetics had not been invented, and more than 50 years went by before any real lenses were produced.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, three different scientists all came up with a similar type of contact lens at around the same time. The Swiss doctor Adolf Fick, the French optician Eugene Kalt, and a German glassblower called Friedrich Muller, all created glass lenses which covered the entire front surface of the eye. Unfortunately, the lenses were quite heavy and tended to fall out; they prevented oxygen from reaching the eyeball, were uncomfortable or even painful, and sometimes damaged the eye. In addition to all these problems, the lenses gave the wearer an odd appearance. It is perhaps no surprise that they never became popular.

A breakthrough occurred in the 1930s when William Feinbloom, an optometrist in New York, devised a contact lens made from both glass and plastic. The use of plastic made the lens much lighter to wear. Soon after Feinbloom's development, a number of manufacturers started to make all-plastic lenses and, by 1948, lenses were produced that covered only the cornea. The smaller size of these lenses made them more comfortable to wear for longer periods. In 1950, a lens shaped to fit the cornea snugly was created for the first time by George Butterfield, an American optometrist and, in 1960, the soft lens was developed. Two chemists in Czechoslovakia, Drahoslav Lim and Otto Wichterle, created lenses from a soft plastic, or hydrogel, which could absorb water. In the '70s these lenses were produced in the United States and, because they were so comfortable, the popularity of contact lenses increased.

Soft lenses were followed by toric and rigid gas permeable lenses and, in the '80s, tinted contact lenses, bifocals and extended wear versions. It was also in the '80s that disposable lenses first appeared. Following further advances in the 1990s, customers can now choose from all of these options, plus daily or two-weekly disposable lenses and even tinted or UV-absorbing versions. Multifocal disposable lenses are also available and rigid gas permeable lenses can be tinted and suitable for extended wear.

Possible future developments include bionic lenses which display information in the part of the wearer's field of view. Such lenses could be used to display websites, play online games, or for medical purposes, delivering drugs or monitoring physical changes through the tears. While the impact of bionic lenses remains unknown, it is possible that they could become an indispensable part of human life, with potential positive and negative consequences.

The following links contain more information about the history and development of contact lenses.

A Concise History of Contact Lenses - British Science Museum overview of the development of contact lenses with links providing further information relevant to the article.

Contact Lens History Dates and Events - A useful chart showing all the main events in contact lens development, from 1508 to 1999.

Developments in the History of Contact Lenses - A detailed list of the major developments in the history of contact lenses, arranged according to date.

Early Plastic Contact Lenses – A short article about the introduction of plastic lenses, with an interesting picture of a pair of early lenses from around 1950.

Contact Lenses: Their History, Manufacturing and Future - A fascinating and thorough article covering the history of contact lenses, the manufacturing process and possible future advances.

All About Bifocal Contact Lenses - The history, types and uses of bifocal contact lenses.

Bionic Contact Lenses - An interesting article investigating the pros and cons associated with widespread use of bionic contact lenses.

Drug-Dispensing Contact Lenses - News from the University of Florida about contact lenses which could deliver drugs to wearers.

Contact Lenses as Mobile Devices - Illustrations and text that show how bionic lenses might display information to users.

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