Eye Health

The History of
Contact Lenses

The History of Contact Lenses

The history of contact lenses
is cooler than you think

The history of contact lenses is cooler than you think

As common as contact lenses are, little is known about these small but mighty ocular devices. For instance, did you know that the first contact lenses involved someone wearing a bowl of water on their head?! Read on to learn about how the contact lens was invented.

The history of contact lenses

While contact lenses might seem like a recent invention, they actually date back several centuries. It all started in 1508, when Italian scientist and artist, Leonardo da Vinci, first surmised that dunking one’s head in a bowl of water could change their vision. His hypothesis proved right.

Da Vinci was clearly onto something, and he began experimenting. He crafted a glass lens with a funnel which he poured water into, though he quickly learned the contraption was cumbersome and impractical.

Still, scholars and inventors who came after understood his aim and tried to improve the invention. In 1636, French scientist René Descartes sifted through his predecessor’s observations, and decided to test a new contraption. He filled a glass tube with liquid and placed it directly over the cornea. That’s precisely how “contact lens” got its name—because the tube literally came into contact with the eye. Although Descartes made progress on da Vinci’s work and proved it could successfully enhance vision, it wasn’t a solid solution, considering humans can’t blink with a glass tube on their cornea.

There was a lull in research after Descartes. In fact, about 200 years went by before another scientist took a stab at creating one. That was until 1801, when English scientist Thomas Young stepped onto the scene. Building from Descartes’ prototype, Young produced the first pair of contact lenses. He minimized the size of the glass tube considerably and used wax to adhere the lenses to the eyeballs. Believe it or not, Young glued glass to his eye—which, for obvious reasons, turned out to be a big no-no.

While Young’s invention was a flop, it was still a step in the right direction. In 1845, English physicist John Herschel picked up where Young left off and created a mold of the cornea to create vision correcting lenses. Sadly, he lacked the necessary tools to bring his idea to life, but as technology advanced, his vision ultimately became a reality.

In the 1880s, several scientists began developing cutting-edge glass contact lenses, which were thin enough to allow for blinking. Although the history is somewhat murky, Dr. Adolf Fick, a Swiss doctor—who wrote a famed paper called “A Contact Spectacle”—is often credited with inventing contact lenses. He was the first person to fit contact lenses, and he initially started experimenting on rabbits, then himself and a small sample of brave volunteers.

Although Fick successfully managed to avoid abrasions (he used a special solution on the glass), the contact lenses themselves were too cumbersome to be practical and could only be worn for 30 minutes before becoming potentially dangerous due to Fick’s phenomenon, where the cornea would become clouded due to a lack of oxygen.

Eventually, by the late 1970s, soft contact lenses began to evolve, and the notion of disposable lenses materialized as well. Silicone hydrogel contact lenses arrived in 1999, and the rest is history. Today, more than 3.5 million Canadians—and countless others around the world—depend on contact lenses every day for vision correction.