Many people believe that the contact lens is a modern invention, but that’s actually not the case. In fact, the origins of the contact lens extend as far back as the early sixteenth century. Even the modern form of contact lenses first emerged several decades ago. Since the very first conception of the principle behind contact lenses, these optical devices have undergone many different changes at the hands of several different inventors and eye care professionals. In fact, contacts have gone from cumbersome and uncomfortable devices made of glass to today’s plastic lenses which offer a high level of comfort while providing sharp, clear vision for those with a wide variety of vision problems.
The history of the contact lens dates back to the early sixteenth century. More specifically, in 1508 Leonardo da Vinci came up with the general principle behind contact lenses. While he didn’t actually create such a lens and wasn’t necessarily concerned with correcting vision, da Vinci sketched and described a variety of ideas involving placing a lens directly on the eye in order to aid vision and alter the corneal power of the eye.
During the following century, in the 1630’s, France’s René Descartes proposed the idea of a corneal contact lens. His idea involved the use of a liquid-filled glass tube placed directly against the cornea of the eye and shaped to provide corrected vision. In 1801, a scientist by the name of Thomas Young developed Descartes’ idea by conducting experiments using a liquid-filled eyecup, the outer end of which contained a microscopic lens.
Also in the nineteenth century, British astronomer Sir John Herschel proposed ideas for correcting vision with a jelly-filled capsule and a corneal mould. These ideas were published in a footnote of the Encyclopedia Metropolitana in 1845. Although it’s believed that Herschel never actually tested these ideas himself, they did provide the basis for experiments and inventions later on which would eventually lead to the creation of lenses shaped to fit the eye.
Just over 40 years after Herschel’s ideas were published, in 1887, Germany’s F.E. Muller created the first usable contact lens. Muller was a glassblower who made artificial eyes and while his contact lens could be seen through and could be tolerated for a few hours at a time, it was made of glass and was not very comfortable. Yet, just one year later, there were reports that both a German physician and a French optician were using contact lenses to correct vision problems caused by optical defects. In fact, the German physician, Adolph Eugen Fick, is sometimes credited with the invention of the contact lens. Fick develop Herschel’s ideas and created scleral contact shells. He then experimented with fitting the lenses on rabbits and then on himself. However, as Fick’s contact lenses were still made of glass, they were very uncomfortable and could only be worn for a couple of hours at a time.
Although glass contacts were so uncomfortable, they were the only type of contact lenses available until the 1930’s. That was when polymethyl methacrylate was first developed. This new material led to the advent of the first lenses made of a combination of glass and plastic, which were introduced in 1936 by a New York optometrist by the name of William Feinbloom. Around 1950, an optometrist from Oregon developed the first corneal contact lens. Since corneal contacts were smaller than scleral lenses, they were more comfortable and could be worn for far longer periods of time.
These developments led to a vast increase in the use and appeal of contact lenses throughout the 1960’s. Over the years, several significant advancements were made regarding the manufacture and the sophistication of contacts. One such advancement included the development of the first soft contact lens. These soft lenses were made available in some countries during the 1960’s and were first launched in the United States in 1971.
Since that time, contact lenses have continued to improve in quality and comfort, and several new varieties of lenses have also been developed. For example, toric contact lenses were first approved for use in the United States in 1978, and the first rigid gas permeable lenses hit the market in 1979. Bifocal and tinted contact lenses became available during the 1980’s while the 1990’s saw the introduction of daily disposable and ultraviolet-absorbing contacts.
Clearly, the contact lens has a long history and numerous significant advancements have been made in recent decades. In fact, now people with astigmatism and many other types of eye diseases and vision problems can use contact lenses to see clearly and comfortably. Contacts are also becoming increasingly affordable and are available from a variety of discount retailers such as CoastalContacts.com. Considering the history of the contact lens, advancements in design and manufacturing will most likely continue to occur, making contact lenses even more of an excellent option for correcting all types of vision problems.