The contact lens market has grown dramatically in recent years. Many people now choose contacts a viable alternative to glasses. Whether for cosmetic reasons, professional needs, or simply ease and comfort, many individuals now use contact lenses on a daily basis. As of 2010, an estimated 125 million people (or 2% of the world’s population) wears contacts. The journey of the invention and evolution of the modern contact is lengthy and interesting.
Although most people think of contacts as a modern invention and phenomenon, the very first prototype was actually proposed by Leonardo da Vinci! Leonardo suggested that the human eye’s perception could be altered by placing the cornea directly in contact with water. He conducted such an experiment with an individual using a bowl of water, and the individual reported seeing clearly for the first time. Leonardo was demonstrating and observing the ability to improve refraction and peripheral visual awareness through a medium (in this case, water).
Leonardo da Vinci then created a “contact lens” by holding a funnel held against the eye so that water could be poured into it. Although novel, the idea was clearly impractical. It wouldn’t be until many years later that the next advancement in contacts would occur.
It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that the next forward leaps came for the contact lens. In 1827, Sir John Herschel proposed the idea of making a mold of a patient’s eyes. By making a mold, Herschel hoped to empower doctors to create lenses that would conform to the patient’s unique surface of his eyes. However, while this idea was theoretically sound, Herschel faced several difficult challenges to the practical application of his concepts. One challenge is the incredibly sensitive and delicate nature of the cornea, which is made of soft tissues that contain thousands of nerves. It would be another fifty years before technology and production capacities reached a point where such creation was feasible.
In 1884, with the introduction of anesthesia, contact lens technology finally took the next step as creating the mold of the eye became an actualized possibility. The first contacts were created by three different men simultaneously and independently. Dr. Adolf Fic, a physician in Zurich, Switzerland, created the first contact lens with refractive power. His lenses first were intended to protect the eye, and later were also used for improving the clarity of a patient’s vision. F. A. Mueller, who also made fake glass eyes, created a lenses made of a very thin glass. He found success in treating corneal disease with these lenses. Finally, Eugene Cult, who was a glass blower from Wiesbaden, Germany, used glass shells to create contacts.
These types of contacts, known as scleral lenses, were so named because they covered the entire eye with glass, including the white part, or the sclera. They were quite uncomfortable. Because they covered the entire eye, these lenses severely limited oxygen flow to the cornea, and could only be worn for a few hours at a time. Although they never became widely used or accepted, these lenses were the major type of contacts used during this time.
In the 1930’s, another innovation changed the development and trajectory of contacts forever. For the first time, plastics became widely available in manufacturing. Plastics enabled the production of light and transparent lenses. These lenses were consistent, scratch resistant, and much easier to manufacture.
In 1936, New York optometrist William Feinbloom created new scleral lenses made of a combination of glass and plastic. These lenses were much lighter than the glass-blown contacts that came before. Soon after, in 1948, A Californian optician, Kevin Touhy, made what was the precursor of the modern contact lens. His lenses were the first to only cover the cornea of the eye, thus taking on the name “corneal contact lens.”
Based on Touhy’s work, the contact lens soon could be worn all day, offered previously unattained clarity of vision, and no longer could be seen on the patient’s eyes when worn.
In the 1960’s, demand for contact lenses exploded even as technology continually improved. Contacts got smaller and thinner. It was during this time that innovators discovered discomfort from wear came from the cornea being deprived of oxygen. A new type of plastic that had great elasticity when wet but held its shape and rigidity was discovered, and used in contact production. This type of plastic allowed the shift away from hard contacts to soft lenses. By the 1980’s, we had the innovation of the soft disposable contact. To this day, new and improved materials that increase oxygen flow and comfort continue to be developed.
Contact lenses have dramatically shaped how we treat eye care and vision. Although they haven’t and probably never will replace glasses, contacts offer millions a comfortable and more discreet way of correcting vision and eye health problems.