The Eye-opening History of the Contact Lens

Health Writer

Like most inventions, the journey from contact lens concept to completion took a very long time. To be exact, it took five centuries. Many of us would have given up after five days. Fortunately, the insight of a scientist is usually reinforced by perseverance and patience. Persistence of vision by several scientists thus ultimately led to success!

The very early history of contact lenses

Leonardo da Vinci was a master painter, architect, inventor, and scientist; he was a true Renaissance man when science was young. In 1508, Leonardo sketched the concept of a contact lens, illustrating that submerging the cornea in water could alter vision. We think his early drawing could only be the work of a visionary genius.

The first contact lenses

It took centuries to move contact lenses from concept to creation. In 1887, F.A. Muller created a protective lens to cover a damaged eyeball. One year later, two physicians, Adolph Fick and Eugene Cult, experimented independently. They couldn’t make molds of human eyes because anesthesia had not yet been invented. Animal lovers may cringe, but the physicians made molds of rabbit eyes before trying lenses on themselves. We prefer to believe that the rabbits had a humane demise before the mold-making process.

Early contact lens materials

Great inventions often have awkward beginnings. Early contact lenses were made of ground glass--scary but true--and the glass lens covered the entire eye. Oxygen could not pass through the glass lens, and wearers could not blink. It’s thus no surprise that no one could stand them for more than two hours. The 1930s saw a contact lens composed of plastic mixed with glass. Just ten years later, an all-plastic, glass-free contact lens was created.

From soft to gas permeable, extended wear, and disposable

Soft contact lenses were introduced in 1971, followed in 1978 by gas permeable lenses, allowing the transfer of oxygen. Just three years later, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved extended-wear soft lenses, which hit the market in 1986. A few months later, in accordance with the ever-spreading phenomenon of planned obsolescence in the U.S., the industry introduced disposable soft lenses.

Contact lens materials from the 1980s to now

In 1987, gas permeable lenses became available in next-generation fluorosilicone acrylate materials. This new material increased oxygen penetration and reduced protein buildup. In 1996, one-day disposable soft lenses were introduced. Why go to the expense of daily throw-aways? Disposables reduce the risk of infection, and some people are willing to pay more for that added benefit. Close to 2000, silicone-hydrogel contact lenses were introduced and touted for increased oxygen flow and greater comfort. Silicone-hydrogel works so well that it is used for most of today’s soft contact lenses.

Contact lenses and quality

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 30 million people in the U.S. wear contact lenses. So we wanted to know if anyone besides the FDA and CDC is concerned with quality. Someone else is, and we would like to introduce you to the Contact Lens Manufacturers Association (CLMA). Members include laboratories and materials and equipment manufacturers in the U.S. and beyond. And CLMA has a definitive mission. It shapes policies and laws and educates the public, professionals and industries. It also provides education via the Gas Permeable Lens Institute (GPLI). CLMA supports legislation, enforces industry standards, and sponsors research, which is expected to lead to exciting advances. CLMA members hold conferences, promote the contact lens industry, and, most important, focus on ethics and quality. CLMA even has a Seal of Excellence program that offers independent testing of products. We think you will agree that the CLMA and GPLI are important sustainers of quality in the contact lens industry.