The world’s first successful contact lenses were anything but comfortable. The first lenses were made by Dr. Adolf Fick in 1888 from blown glass.
The lenses had some serious drawbacks, however. They were extremely heavy and thick. The lenses also covered the entire eye, which didn’t allow the eye to receive oxygen. For these reasons, the blown glass lenses, which were known as scleral lenses, could only be worn for a few hours because of eye irritation that occurred with the wearer.
Dr. Fick first tested the lenses on rabbits before testing it on himself and a group of volunteers. He is usually credited with the invention of the contact lens because he was the first to propose that they could be used to specifically correct vision.
Fick wasn’t the first to come up with the idea of corrective lenses to be placed directly on the eyes, however. Leonardo da Vinci proposed the idea of submerging the head in a bowl of water to change vision in 1508. He even came up with a device that could be worn over the eye, which could have water poured into it. René Descartes used a similar idea in 1836 that was based on da Vinci’s observations. He proposed using a glass tube filled with liquid that would be placed directly on the cornea. The problem was the wearer wouldn’t have been able to blink.
The 1930s were a time for important advancements in contact lenses following Fick’s invention in the 1880s. Plastic was introduced in lenses which decreased the weight of the lens, but it was still difficult to wear contact lenses for any prolonged period during this time. The lenses still covered the entire eye, and a cast had to be made of the eye to get the right fit.
In 1948, a California optician named Kevin Tuohy made the first all-plastic lenses that fit only over the cornea and not the entire eye. The lenses were hard but could be worn longer and more comfortably, but a significant problem remained because the lenses still couldn’t “breath.”
The big breakthrough for contact lenses came in 1959 and the discovery of soft contact lenses, or hydrogel lenses, by two Czech scientists named Otto Wichterle and Drahoslav Lim. These lenses could “breath” by allowing increased oxygen permeability to the eye. This discovery resulted in what contact lens wearers know today, though things have only gotten better since the two scientists introduced their lenses.
Sources: Smithsonian, All About Vision, 1–800-Contacts, Edward Hand Medical Heritage