The History of Contact Lenses

October 26, 2016

Contact lenses are something that most people wear every day, and never give any thought to where they came from or how we got to the type of contacts that are in use today. What started as an idea from Leonardo da Vinci has now evolved into the concept of disposable contacts today. Here is an overview of the history of contact lenses.

1508   Leonardo da Vinci illustrates the concept of contact lenses

Da Vinci produced the first known sketches of a concept that suggested that human eyesight could be altered by placing the cornea directly in water. However, this concept did not advance any further for another 350 years.

1823   British astronomer Sir John Herschel conceptualizes practical lens design

Herschel proposed the idea of making a mold of a person’s eyes to enable production of corrective lenses.

1887   First contact lens manufactured from glass, and fitted to cover the entire eye

There is some controversy over who created the first pair of lenses. Some sources believe it to be German glassblower F.A. Muller, but others point to Swiss physician Adolf E. Fick and Paris optician Edouard Kalt.

These early glass contacts were thick, heavy, and covered the entire eye, including the sclera (the white of the eye), hence they were referred to as “scleral lenses”. Since they covered the whole eye, oxygen to the eye was cut off, and they could only be worn for a few hours. These lenses did not gain widespread acceptance.

1936   Contact lenses first made from plastic

New York optometrist William Feinbloom introduced the first scleral lenses to be made from a combination of glass and plastic. These lenses were significantly lighter than their predecessor.

1948   Plastic contact lenses designed to cover only the eye’s cornea

California optician Kevin Tuohy created the first lenses that resemble the ones that exist today. These all plastic “corneal” lenses covered only the cornea of the eye. These lenses were made of a non-porous plastic material called polymethyl methacrylate (PPMA). While these lenses still did not allow for gas permeation, they moved with each blink so oxygen carrying tears were able to get under the lens to keep the cornea healthy. Properly fitted PPMA lenses could be worn for 16 hours or longer.


1959   First hydrophilic lenses

Czech chemists Otto Wichterle and Drahoslav Lim invented the first hydrogel soft contact lens material, perhaps the biggest advancement in contact history.

1971   Introduction of soft contact lenses

Wichterle and Lim’s discovery led to the launch of the first FDA-approved soft contact lenses in the United States — Bausch + Lomb’s “SofLens” brand contacts.

1978   Introduction of GP contact lenses

The silicone used to make these lenses is gas permeable,so oxygen can pass directly through GP lenses to keep the cornea healthy without having to rely solely on oxygen-containing tears to be pumped under the lens with each blink.

1981   FDA approval of new soft contact lenses for extended (overnight) wear

Several extended wear lenses are FDA-approved for up to seven days of continuous wear, and at least two brands of silicone hydrogel EW lenses — Air Optix Night & Day (Alcon) and PureVision (Bausch + Lomb) — are approved for up to 30 days of continuous wear.

1987   Introduction of disposable soft contact lenses

Daily disposable contact lenses are single-use lenses that are removed and discarded at the end of each day, and a fresh pair of lenses is applied to the eyes the next morning. Daily contact lenses are gaining popularity among practitioners and consumers for their health and convenience benefits.

2002   Silicone-hydrogel contact lenses first marketed

Silicone hydrogel contact lenses are advanced soft lenses that allow more oxygen to pass through the lens to the cornea than regular soft (“hydrogel”) contacts. In fact, silicone hydrogel lenses enable up to five times more oxygen to reach the cornea than regular hydrogel lenses.

2002   Overnight orthokeratology approved by FDA

Orthokeratology (ortho-k) is the fitting of specially designed gas permeable contact lenses that you wear overnight. While you are asleep, the lenses gently reshape the front surface of your eye (cornea) so you can see clearly the following day after you remove the lenses when you wake up.

2010   Custom-manufactured silicone-hydrogel lenses become available

A number of contact lens manufacturers now offer special design soft contacts for hard-to-fit eyes. These designs feature smaller and larger diameters and a wider range of curvatures and powers than conventional soft lenses for a more customized fit.

Contact technology has come a long way in terms of comfort and safety. The next time you put your contacts in, think of how far contact technology has come to create them.

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