The History of Contact Lenses 

For many of us, contact lenses are inserted and removed day-to-day without us thinking too much about their history. However, while it can be easy to dismiss their origin, contact lenses are literally life-changing for the majority of people, providing a comfortable and convenient correction to poor vision. Though they appear to be a fairly modern invention, the initial concept of contacts was created long ago. 


It was back in 1508 when the most basic concept of the contact lens first emerged, with Italian inventor Leonardo da Vinci writing the ‘Codex of the Eye’. Within his manuscript, da Vinci proposed a solution to vision ailments, suggesting that poor eyesight could be rectified by submerging your head in a glass bowl full of water. This idea expanded into da Vinci creating a glass lens that held a large funnel on one side for the water to be poured in to. Though impractical to say the least, the inventor’s method was the first step in contact lens history.  


In 1633, French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes developed on da Vinci’s concept, describing a similar idea in an essay he wrote. Descartes stated that vision could be corrected by using a test tube filled with water placed on the cornea (the clear outer layer at the front of the eye). Though easier than a bowl of water, the design was still deemed impractical, as it didn’t allow for blinking.  


English scientist Thomas Young created a prototype in 1801 that was directly constructed from Descartes’ idea. Young was able to prove the original principles of both da Vinci and Descartes, having attached water-filled lenses to his eyes, using wax. Young recorded the results of his research, observing that although the lenses blurred his vision, this problem could be rectified by using another set of lenses.  



In 1823, English astronomer Sir John Herschel further contributed to the design of the contact lens. Herschel suggested the idea of grinding a glass contact lens to fit the surface of the cornea, acknowledging that this would need to be fitted as closely as possible. It was Herschel that proposed the idea of using a physical mould of the eye, in order for lenses to be created that accurately fit the eye of the individual wearing them. The astronomer also suggested that a gel be used, sitting between the cornea and the lens, to prevent damage to the eye. 


The creation of contact lenses for the general public became more and more achievable as the 19th century progressed, with the advancement in glass blowing, lens grinding and medical anaesthesia providing an opportunity for accurate replicas of the eye’s curvatures. It was in 1887 when German artificial glass eye makers F.A Muller created a transparent contact lens – not designed to correct vision, but instead protect those suffering with diseased eyes. However, by the start of the 20th century, lenses were occasionally used for those with certain, specific medical issues, with contacts beginning to pave the way for vision correction. 

Through trial and error, creators found that large glass lenses were interfering with the eye’s lubrication, and small lenses were difficult to attach to the eye itself. This meant that lenses required continuous artificial lubrication, which limited their potential for widespread use. Lens wearers also reported them as being uncomfortable, with the risks of danger to the eye seriously increased by the fragility of glass lenses. 


It was in 1936 when American optometrist William Feinbloom first created a plastic scleral lens – producing a lightweight lens that caused no risk of breakage when in the eye. Though Feinbloom had revolutionised the industry and caused glass lenses to become a thing of the past, the scleral lenses were still not quite right. The lenses were still, at this point, covering the whole of the front of the eye, and were therefore only suitable for wearing for short periods of time. 


In 1948 the corneal lens was created by English optical technician Kevin Touhy – though not entirely on purpose. Touhy was sanding down a plastic lens when he noticed the scleral part had fallen off, leaving only enough material to cover the cornea. Touhy tried the smaller lens on himself, and he was amazed to discover it stayed in place while he looked around and began blinking. This led to greater comfort for wearers and less interference with the eye’s natural lubrication, meaning the chances of dry eyes were reduced. 

contact lenses


1960 was an exciting time for contact lenses, when chemists Wichterle and Lim refined the process of casting hydrogel. This development led to hydrophilic lenses that were soft and far more comfortable to wear. However, at first there were many problems to be found with these new, softer contacts, including the high-water content in the lenses causing them to be extremely difficult to handle and insert in the eyes. The optical quality of the lenses wasn’t great either, and it wasn’t until over a decade later that improvements on the design were properly made. 


Canadian eye health product company Bausch & Lomb Inc reached approval from the US Food and Drug Administration in 1971, enabling them to sell their hydrogel lenses. These soft lenses grew and grew in popularity, boosting the age of modern contact lenses. 


The hydrogel construction of contact lenses increased and was improved upon over time, resulting in the release of extended wear soft lenses in 1981. These lenses could be worn overnight, creating both comfort and convenience for contact wearers.  


As the industry expanded, 1986 saw gas permeable extended wear lenses distributed. Gas permeable lenses are created from durable, firm plastic that transmits oxygen, and because they have no water content, they’re far less likely to produce bacteria compared to soft contacts. 


Conquering hygiene problems even further, 1987 saw the release of disposable soft contact lenses. These innovative lenses enabled users to throw away their contacts after each use, making them still the most popular lens type today.