Humans are an imperfect species, and the vast majority of us have compromised vision to some extent. Fortunately, medical technology from eyeglasses to Lasik surgery has allowed us to keep seeing clearly despite our imperfections. Contact lenses are one of the most popular ways to improve vision because of their affordability and aesthetic appeal.
But do you know the history of contact lenses? They’re quite a bit younger than prescription glasses. It may seem like contacts are a new idea, and that is sort of true. Modern contacts as we know them today are only a few decades old, but the first attempts at a contact lens date back hundreds of years. The history of contact lenses is full of both weird and dangerous inventions.
Contact lenses: the early days
Most timelines place the origin of contact lenses sometime in the early 1800’s, but their conception was actually much earlier. In the early 1500’s, Leonardo da Vinci penned “Codex of the Eye”, in which he speculated that submerging one’s head in a bowl of water could alter vision. He further developed this concept into a delightful funnel-lens contraption that could be worn and, when water was poured through the funnel, vision was improved (sort of).
It wasn’t until over a hundred years later that French scientist Rene Descartes took da Vinci’s work and ran with it. Descartes brought the “contact” to contact lenses by developing a glass tube that could be placed directly on the eye and filled with water. The device did slightly improve the vision of those who wore it, with one minor downside: blinking was impossible.
During the early 1800’s, the technology for contact lenses improved by leaps and bounds. Contact lenses were shaved down, so they were finally thin enough to let the humans wearing them blink their eyes. These early lenses, called scleral lenses, were convex, allowing them to trap tears or special dextrose solutions between the lens and the eye. Staring through this trapped liquid was what improved vision.
Unfortunately, these lenses were heavy and uncomfortable. They also covered too much of the surface of the eye, suffocating the eye of oxygen. Unlike other organs, which get their oxygen from the bloodstream, your eyes pull oxygen directly from the air, so these lenses were a disaster. They couldn’t be worn for more than a few hours without causing extreme pain (and they certainly couldn’t be slept in). All in all, not the best way to correct vision, but scleral lenses were the only contact lens option for a solid half a century.
Way back in the earliest days of contact lenses, when people were still playing around with Descartes original, fateful designs, the idea of taking cornea molds was suggested. It was hypothesized that a mold of the cornea would be instrumental in creating a lens that could fully compensate for astigmatism, nearsightedness and farsightedness. Unfortunately, the technology to accomplish this took a while to come about.
It was the early 1900’s, and advances in anesthesiology and medical technology finally allowed for cornea molds to become a reality. This advancement meant lenses could be created that conformed to an individual’s eye. New plastics hitting the production lines meant lenses could be durable, thin and transparent.
Unfortunately, these lenses were still scleral and came with a very limited wear time.
In the 1950’s, the development of soft contact lenses finally began. A new plastic called hydrogel proved to be much more malleable and permeable. From these new hydrogel lenses, we get our modern day soft contacts. Finally, contact lenses were no longer painfully uncomfortable to wear (although they were now pliant enough to be breakable).
In the latter half of the 20th century, the technology behind both soft and hard contact lenses continued to evolve. They became more gas permeable, allowing oxygen to reach the eyes and thus extending wear time. Comfort grew, and contact lenses became both safer and more convenient.
Contact lenses today utilize silicone hydrogel and are custom-manufactured. Single-use contact lenses, an invention of the nineties, are also commonplace nowadays.
A few years back, contact lens technology took a slight detour. Orthokeratology boasts a subset of contact lens technology. These contact lenses are designed to be worn only at night. During the night, the lenses apply pressure to reshape the cornea and by morning, the wearer’s eyesight will be markedly improved. This allows them to go about their day wearing no contact lenses or prescription eyeglasses.
The effects of these lenses wear off as the day progresses, and they are not very commonly used in the United States.
Contact lenses today
Contacts remain a popular vision correction tool. Their main advantages over prescription glasses include aesthetic appeal and a more natural feel. We’ve come a long way from pouring water down funnels and sticking glass shards to eyeballs with wax. Nowadays, safe and effective contact lenses can be ordered online from 39DollarGlasses.com. It was a long journey getting here, but contacts have truly evolved into amazing medical devices.