An Eye-Opening Look At The History Of Contact Lenses

Wake up, make coffee, affix a glass sphere to your eye with animal jelly.
An Eye-Opening Look At The History Of Contact Lenses

In recent times, glasses have experienced a bit of a fashion glow-up, even going so far as to make fake glasses a fleeting trend. In the 1990s and 2000s, however, glasses felt lodged squarely in the domain of the locker-dwelling dweeb or nebbish professor. If you were seeking a look that didn’t suggest a love for extra credit while still being able to read most road signs, the solution was the contact lens. Even when glasses are fashion-forward, whether it’s due to physical activity, convenience, or even just personal preference, contact lenses are still a massive industry and option for those of us who are less eagle-eyed and more bat-blind.

Contacts have only gotten easier to wear over the years as well. Lens-wearers today enjoy casually tossing out a stream of dailies, or at the very least being able to sleep with their lenses in without waking up in a panic. They’ve come a long way from myopic humans of old having to slide bits of blown glass under their eyelids. Here’s a quick look at their evolution.

Da Vinci, Duh

Public Domain

Like any good modern invention, of course Leonardo Da Vinci is involved. There’s not much you can cook up that can’t be traced back to some chicken scratch the Italian inventor etched onto an ancient scratch pad. The link to the modern corrective contact lens is disputed, and may not be direct, but we do have illustrations of the eye being submerged in water in an exploration of how images are processed.

John Herschel And Animal Jelly

Public Domain

John Herschel

Centuries later, we’d find Sir John Herschel, an inventor and all around generally incredibly smart dude, start to theorize the idea of corrective lenses. His ideas included solving refractive issues within the eye by applying spherical glass and animal jelly, which sounds like something off the side of a cat food can. Though the idea of pasting animal jelly onto the human eye sounds more like a way to contract some sort of worms than an effective way to correct vision, he was ahead of his time. He also was the first person to accurately diagnose astigmatism, so he was a bit of an eye whiz in general.

Say Hello To The Scleral Lens


A modern scleral lens.

In 1888 the German ophthalmologist and owner of an absolute oral workout of a name, Adolf Gaston Eugen Fick, would introduce the first effective corrective contact lens. It was a scleral lens, meaning that it rested on the sclera, or the white, of the eye. Not only that, it was made from blown glass. As you can imagine, popping in two tiny plates of glass that cover your entire eye wasn’t exactly the height of comfort. That, combined with the fact that the glass would prevent your eyes from absorbing oxygen, meant that any wear-time over a couple hours resulted in severe optical pain.

Plastic Enters The Picture

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Polymethyl methacrylate acrylic glass.

With the introduction of polymethyl methacrylate, most commonly known as plexiglass, in the 1930s, it didn’t take long for it to be eyed as a solution for contact lenses. A hybrid plastic and glass lens was introduced by William Feinbloom in 1936, and 3 years later in 1939 Dr. Istvan Gyorffy invented fully plastic lenses. Sure, this improvement in materials made the lens less fragile and more convenient, and definitely a hell of a lot cheaper, but it didn’t solve all the problems. Even though you weren’t still tucking little glass bowls into your eye, plexiglass covering most of your visible eye still caused a lot of problems with comfort and the aforementioned need for oxygen.

Contacts Shrink To Corneas

Reinhard Muller

Eye with visible corneal contact lens.

What would a technological advancement be without at least one “happy accident” somewhere in its development? For contact lenses, that came in 1948 in England. At an optician’s in England, Kevin Touhy was sanding a plastic contact lens down when a seeming disaster struck, and the scleral, outside portion of the lens fell off entirely. Out of maybe a perfect combination of intellectual curiosity and the deep, relatable urge to not want to start something over, Touhy just sanded the edges of the remaining, smaller corneal portion down and tried it on. He was surprised to find that not only did it fit, it stayed in place. One man’s “f**k it” moment brought about a whole new movement in contact lens technology.

Because these new, “corneal” contact lenses were much smaller, the eye was able to absorb vastly more oxygen through the exposed sclera during wear. We were still a ways away from long-term wear, but they could now be worn for about 16 hours, a number that jived pretty perfectly with most people’s day-to-day schedules.

Contact Lenses Go Soft


Invented, strangely, by a man with killer taste in glasses.

We’re now approaching the modern contact lens, with more constantly evolving advancements rather than wholesale breakthroughs. In 1961, perhaps one of the most important innovations of all came about, with the introduction of the soft contact. Czech chemist Otto Wichterle (at his kitchen table, no less) created the first soft contact lens out of hydroxy ethyl methacrylate, a transparent hydrogel. This soft lens was not only vastly more comfortable, but, unlike past rigid lenses, was gas-permeable, allowing for more oxygen to reach the eye. Not bad for something he literally manufactured using his kids’ Erector set.

Silicone Hydrogel Soft Lenses


A modern contact lens.

With gas-permeable soft lenses solving so many of the contact lens’ problems, the industry would happily chug along until another noteworthy development. This came in 1998, with the introduction of a new, silicone hydrogel contact lens. Introduced in quick succession by Mexico’s CIBA Vision and Bausch & Lomb, the introduction of silicone allowed for even more oxygen permeability. This allowed the lens to be marketed as “extended wear”, suitable for occasional overnight wear, which any lens wearer that’s ever had an unexpected sleepover can appreciate.

Contact lens manufacturers continue to advance technology to make them easier and healthier to wear. As long as you’re willing to touch your eye, science has made perfect vision more accessible than ever. Just be glad you’re not still sticking glassware in there.

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