History of the Contact Lens — The Vision of Leonardo Da Vinci

Although I have been wearing contact lenses for just over two years now, my first recollection of lenses was from bob-a-job week when I was eleven years old. My sister had recently started wearing them. Attempting to put them in one day she’s dropped one and couldn’t find it. The whole family helped and I was the lucky soul who managed to find it by a better method than standing on it. For my troubles, my mother kindly gave me 11p towards my bob-a-job total.

(For those in countries other than the UK, Bob-a-Job was something that members of the Boy Scouts would do once a year. During a specific week of the year, normally in the Spring months, doorbells and knockers up and down the length of the country would sound as eager, scrubbed faces joyfully announced to those foolish enough to answer the door “Bob a job week, have you any jobs you’d like doing?” Tradition was that you’d find a simple, innocent and non taxing job for them to do and then give them a bob or two. All the money they collected would then be handed into the scoutmaster at the end of the week and passed to charity. I was glad never to be one of the sorry victims who ended up having to clean a car inside and out for 10p!)

Now the contact lenses my sister had were scary. It was in the time when contact lenses were made out of non permeable glass! ( I shudder even now at the thought of having to try and place a thin sliver of curved glass into my eyes!)

But it got me to pondering recently – what is the history of contact lenses? When did they first appear and who was the first person to think of them? The answers will, I think, surprise you quite a bit.

So – starting from the beginning, can you think who might have dreamed up the contact lens? A famous or pioneering doctor maybe? An optician thinking way before his years?

And in what year did the first contact lens idea spring up? Who had the vision of foresight – if you’ll pardon the pun?

Well, not unsurprisingly, the first person to dream the concept of a contact lens was none other than Leonardo da Vinci in 1508!! It’s surprising that it was in 1508 but not at all surprising that the father of so many far sighted concepts, Leonardo da Vinci, should be the man to first sketch the idea.

Nothing really happened for over a century once Leonardo had thought of them. After all, they didn’t exactly have the precision tools and knowledge to make them at that time.

So it’s again surprising to find that in 1632 a Frenchman called Rene Descartes came up with the idea for the corneal contact lens. This idea was left on the shelf for almost another two centuries until 1801, when Thomas Young evolved Descartes’s idea to correct his own sight by using a quarter inch long glass tube, filled with water and a microscopic lens at the far end.

Development of the contact lenses we know today started to speed up from this point in time.

In 1827 (although it maybe as early as 1823, opinions differ on this point) the English astronomer Sir John Herschel introduced the idea of actually grinding the contact lens to a specific shape to better conform to the eye’s shape.

Then the breakthrough. In 1887 the German glassblower F Muller made the first ever contact lenses specially made to be worn on the eye without causing irritation. This kickstarted two opticians from separate countries – Edouard Kalt of France and Eugen Fick of Switzerland – to report that they had used contact lenses to correct the sight of patients successfully.

In the US – William Feinbloom made the first ever American lenses in New York and introduced the idea of plastic as an optional material. Delayed by the not too small event of World War Two, the AOA (American Optometric Association) declared contact lenses a formal practice of optometry in 1945.

Following this approval, work on designing the best lenses proceeded apace. In 1950 Dr. G Butterfield designed a corneal lens, an important step forwards in that it allowed lenses to be created that would follow the shape of the eye instead of sitting on top of it.

Ten years later in 1960 Otto Wichterie and Drahoslav Lim begin experimenting with water absorbing soft plastic as a means of making lenses. Eleven years later in 1971, the soft lens officially became available for commercial use in the US with the rest of the world following at varying degrees, dependent on their ruling medical bodies granting permission for use of the material.

And it is this step which gives us the biggest move in making lenses commercially available today.

Based on the acceptance worldwide of soft lenses, we now have the different styles we know today. Rigid Gas Permeable lenses, toric lenses, tinted and colored lenses, bifocal lenses – all the different lenses we have were born from that point.

So when you get to the end of a day and stand before your bathroom mirror, carefully taking out your lenses and placing them in their overnight lens case – just pause a second and think of Leonardo and those clever people who came after him.

From the simple sketches of an idea in a book filled with clever, before their time ideas, through the dedication and imagination of more clever people and finishing with you standing in your bathroom balancing a small sliver of plastic on the tip of a finger, the contact lens has had one hell of a journey already!

Do you have the vision to see where it should go now?

Copyright::Rufus Steele 2005

Rufus Steele loves writing and has covered a variety of different topics. Anything that takes his interest or tickles his funny bone gets written about. You can read more of his articles and reviews of Contact Lenses at Contact-Lens-Info-Online