Contact lenses might seem like a fairly recent phenomenon, but Leonardo da Vinci, the famous Italian inventor and mathematician developed the first known sketches back in 1508 suggesting that it was possible to alter the optics of the human eye by placing the cornea in direct contact with water.
However, the truth is that contact lenses were invented for real much later. It is believed that da Vinci’s ideas were responsible for the eventual development of contact lenses over 3 and a half centuries later.
Sir John Herschel, an English astronomer proposed the idea of making molds of a person’s eyes in 1827. The molds would help in the production of corrective lenses that would conform to the eye’s front surface. However, it would be more than 50 years later when someone would actually produce such lenses and controversy still surrounds the identity of who actually did it first.
According to some, it was F.A. Muller, a German glassblower that used Herschel’s ideas to come up with the first known glass contact lens back in 1887. Other reports say that it was actually Adolf E. Fick and Edouard Kalt, a Paris optician that created and fitted the first glass contact lenses for correcting vision problems back in 1888.
The early glass contact lenses were quite heavy and would cover the eye’s entire front surface including the sclera (white) of the eye. Since these large lenses reduced the supply of oxygen to the cornea significantly, wearers would only tolerate them for several hours, and they never gained widespread acceptance.
William Feinbloom, a New York optometrist, introduced new scleral lenses in 1936 made of a combination of glass and plastic that were considerably lighter than previous glass-blown contacts.
Kevin Tuohy, a California optician, introduced the first contact lenses that resembled the modern contact lenses back in 1948. They were all-plastic lenses and were referred to as “corneal” contact lenses since they were smaller in diameter than earlier contact lenses and only covered the cornea, which is the eye’s clear front surface.
The early hard lenses were made of polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), which is a non-porous plastic material. The PMMA lenses weren’t gas permeable, but they were fitted in such a way that they could move with every blink, so oxygen-laden tears could be “pumped” under the lens to ensure that the cornea stayed healthy.
The contact lenses known as "Corneal PMMA" could be worn for around 16 hours a day or even longer when properly fitted. Advances that were made in lens manufacturing techniques as well as eye doctor expertise at fittings, led to the mass appeal of the hard-plastic contact lenses back in the 1950’s and 60’s.
The invention of the first hydrophilic hydrogel soft contact lenses by Drahoslav Lim and Otto Wichterle who were Czech chemists back in 1959 was probably the greatest event in the history of contact lenses.
It was the discovery by Lim and Wichterle that led to the introduction of the first soft contact lenses to be approved by the FDA in the United States.
Soft contacts quickly become more popular than hard contact lenses made of PMMA due to their greater comfort. Today, in spite of the fact that rigid gas permeable contacts that usually provide sharper vision compared to soft lenses and very good oxygen permeability are readily available, over 90% of all contact lenses in the US are actually soft lenses.