The concept of wearing some kind of lens in order to perk up your vision may seem like a recent innovation, but nothing can be further from the truth. The first documented instance of using some sort of lens to aid vision dates back to 1508, when Leonardo da Vinci created very detailed drawings of lenses to place over the eye to aid in vision. During his time, however, the proper materials and technology simply were not available to create contact lenses.
Despite da Vinci’s failed efforts to create the contact lens, the dream still lived on. Man continued to seek methods for improving poor eye site in an unobtrusive manner. In fact, Rene Descarte envisioned the first corneal contact lens, which only covered the corena rather than the entire eye, in 1632. In 1801, Thomas Young continued the research into its development and also demonstrated that he could improve his own vision by using a ¼” long glass tube filled with water.
21 years later, Sir John Herschel suggested making a mold of the eye to create contact lens to fit exactly to the eye’s surface. This concept wasn’t made possible for another 60 years when anesthesia was developed. At this time, in 1887, F.A. Muller made a transparent lens to cover a diseased eye. This technique was used for many years, despite the fact that the lenses were very heavy and could only be worn for short periods of time.
Modern Day Contacts Begin
In 1888, the first contact lenses as we know them today were developed by A.E. Fick. Fick used Herschel’s idea of creating a mold to begin experimenting with rabbit eyes. Then, he used cadavers to perfect the method and made glass contact lenses to help with his own vision. These first contacts, however, were very uncomfortable. As a result, Fick only wore them for a couple hours.
The advance in contacts were slow moving following this initial invention because they were so uncomfortable and because the lack of oxygen flow caused by the glass contacts, they were unhealthy for the eyes. Scientists did, however, begin to actively pursue the creation of a material to be used for contact lenses that would both correct vision and allow for oxygen to reach the eye. In addition, researchers began trying to understand how long contacts could be safely worn and whether or not one lens shape could be made that would be able to fit all eyes.
In 1938, true advancements in contact lens development began to emerge when Obrig and Mullen created the first all plastic contact lens from polymethymethacrylate (PMMA). This material was far more comfortable than glass, weighed less, and was safer for the eye. These contact lenses covered the entire eye, making them what is referred to as “scleral lenses.” This type of lens was originally created with glass contact lenses to help prevent them from falling out because of their own weight. The unfortunate side effect with glass contact lenses was that this prevented oxygen from reaching the eye completely.
In 1945, the American Optometric Association officially recognized contact lenses ad an important area of the field and finally, in 1947, Kevin Touhy developed contact lenses made of plastic. In 1950, Dr. George Butterfield developed corneal lenses that followed the curvature of the eye rather than lying flat.
These lenses are what are known today as “hard” contact lenses, but they were the only type of contact lenses available for about 20 years. Of course, these contact lenses still had a long way to go to get to where contact lenses are today. These lenses still did not allow the eye to breathe properly and were still uncomfortable to wear.
In 1960, Otto Wichterle and Drahoslay Lima created hyrdroxyethylmethacrylate, which was mostly made of water. This special material was capable of being hard when dry, yet soft when wet. This led the revolution to “soft” contact lenses. At first, these contacts were difficult to handle and were not as effective in correcting vision problems.
In addition, scientists were concerned about their possible lack of resistance to bacteria and other harmful contaminates. In 1971, however, Bausch & Lomb managed to gain approval from the FDA to sell these new contact lenses and the rest, as they say, is history.