History of Contact Lenses

By Nimi Patel

Image Credit: Helyx Graphic Designer: Faiza Chowdhury

Have you ever wondered how the contact lenses you pop in your eyes every morning have evolved? Since 1508, the contact lens industry has advanced quite a bit. That year, Leonardo da Vinci, an Italian inventor, conjectured that submerging a person’s head in a bowl of water could have an effect on one’s vision. Additionally, he created a lens made of glass containing a funnel, where water could be poured into.

After some time, in 1636, René Descartes placed a glass tube filled with liquid in contact with the eye. This led to the name “contact lens” because the tube was in contact with the cornea. Descartes’s work slightly enhanced vision, but made blinking a difficulty.

In 1801, nearly two centuries later, a man named Thomas Young created another version of contact lens. By minimizing the original glass tube’s size to ¼ inch and using wax, he was able to successfully stick these lenses to the eyes. Since this was not a pragmatic approach though, it failed to work well. Luckily, Sir John Herschel theorized that this could be resolved through taking corneal molds, which would allow for the creation of properly functioning contact lenses. However, lacking the necessary technology, he was unable to test his hypothesis.

During the early 1880s, new methods of cutting, shaping, and producing glass emerged. This greatly benefited the contact lens industry, with people like Dr. Adolf Fick, Eugene Cult, and Louis J. Girard designing new, well-fitting contact lenses that permitted blinking. Despite the growth of the industry, though, the glass lenses created many issues. For example, covering the eye with a glass lens led to a lack of oxygen. Major organs in the human body system receive oxygen through blood, but the eyes receive oxygen through the air. Therefore, those who wore these glass lenses suffered extreme pain in the eyes while wearing them.

In 1929, Dr. Dallos and Ivan Koráromy created molds from eyes of the living, which was based on Sir John Herschel’s theory. This made it possible to create lenses that fit the human eye. In 1930, a new type of plastic made it possible to produce contact lenses that were light and clear: these lenses were scleral lenses and covered the eyes entirely.

In 1948, Kevin Touhy was sanding down a plastic lens. During this sanding process, the portion of the lens that covered the white of the eye fell. Touhy attempted to make the lens smaller to adapt to this incident, which shortened the edges, so he tried them on. To his astonishment, the lenses still worked, and made blinking possible too. This led to corneal lenses, which are commonly used today.

Two years afterwards, George Butterfield created curved lenses. Later, thinner lenses about 0.20 millimeters in width were created by Frank Dickenson, Wilhelm Sohnjes, and John Neil. In the early 1960s, lenses of a width of 0.10 millimeters were created. It would seem that the contact lens industry had come very far, but there was still one more problem left: lenses could still not be worn for long periods of time.

In 1958, however, Otto Wichterle began the process of creating hydrogel, a type of soft and malleable plastic when wet. In the 1960s, Bauch and Lomb, a well-known company today, used a technique to make lenses with a consistent surface that could be produced in large amounts. Finally, in 1998, Ciba Vision created lenses that were able to allow a high amount of oxygen to be absorbed, which resolved the previous problem.

What began as a simple idea of submerging one's head in a glass bowl of water has evolved tremendously to the point where lenses can be worn comfortably all day long. This evolution has made it easier for people with vision problems to see in a comfortable way. So, before you pop a contact lens in your eye, be thankful for how far such a wonderful invention has come.


-, A., By, -, & Achwal, A. (2019, May 22). 8 Side Effects of Overwearing Contact Lens. Retrieved July 26, 2020, from https://parenting.firstcry.com/articles/magazine-8-side-effects-of-overwearing-contact-lens/

Da Vinci to disposable: A history of contact lenses. (2020, June 04). Retrieved July 26, 2020, from https://www.1800contacts.com/eyesociety/da-vinci-to-disposable-a-history-of-contact-lenses/

31 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All