Contact lens history: how contact lenses have developed through the years

The history of contact lenses

Contact lenses have a remarkable history that goes back more than 500 years. It seems that people have always wanted a way to see clearly without having to rely on eyeglasses. It was simply a matter of time before the technology was available to deliver a practical solution. Contact lens history is an interesting subject to learn about, especially for those who rely on these tiny but complex items.

How have contact lenses changed throughout history?

The history of contact lenses began in 1505 when Leonardo da Vinci first described and sketched some ideas in his Codex of the Eye, Manual D. His inspiration for these drawings was the effect that immersing one's eye in a bowl of water has on vision. More than 100 years later, Rene Descartes considered placing a lens on the cornea. However, his large design was not practical, as the wearer would be unable to blink. The history of contact lenses continued in 1801 when Thomas Young improved upon the designs of Descartes. Young created an eyecup comprising a water-filled glass tube that contained a very small lens on one end. In 1827, Sir John Hershel suggested grinding a lens to fit exactly over the surface of the eye. With this, the development and history of contact lenses significantly increased pace and by 1888, they were being tested as a way to correct vision.

Modern contacts - benefiting from history's lessons

Throughout the 20th century, contact lens history continued to evolve and dramatic discoveries were made that allowed the lenses to become more effective treatments for vision problems. 

With the development of gas permeable materials and soft lenses in the 1960s and 1970s, contacts became safer and more comfortable - and therefore popular options for the correction of nearsightedness and farsightedness. Towards the late 1970s, toric lenses were also developed, providing a solution for astigmatism.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, the technologies continued to improve and varifocal lenses became available to treat presbyopia. Disposable lenses also became more common due to their low price, hygiene benefits and simplicity of use. 

Today, contact lens history and development continues with exciting new research to make them more and more effective, safe and affordable. There is a huge selection of options available for various eye conditions, as well as personal preference and even cosmetic purposes. 

Milestones in Contact Lens History


1508:Leonardo da Vinci sketches and describes several forms of contact lenses.
1632:Rene Descartes of France suggests the corneal contact lens.
1801:Thomas Young develops Descartes' idea -- a quarter-inch-long, water-filled glass tube, the outer end containing a microscopic lens -- and uses it to correct his own vision.
1827:English astronomer Sir John Herschel suggests grinding a contact lens to conform exactly to the eye's surface.
1887:Glassblower F.E. Muller of Wiesbaden, Germany, produces the first eye covering designed to be seen through and tolerated.
1888:Two independent researchers, A. Eugen Fick, a Swiss physician, and Paris optician Edouard Kalt, almost simultaneously report using contact lenses to correct optical defects.
1929:Joseph Dallos, a Hungarian physician, perfects methods of taking molds from living eyes so that lenses can be made to conform more closely to individual sclera.
1936:William Feinbloom, a New York optometrist, fabricates the first American- made contact lenses and introduces the use of plastic.
1945:The American Optometric Association (AOA) formally recognizes the growing contact lens field by specifying contact lens fitting as an integral part of the practice of optometry.
1950:Dr. George Butterfield, an Oregon optometrist, designs a corneal lens, the inner surface of which follows the eye's shape instead of sitting flat.
1960:Otto Wichterle and Drahoslav Lim experiment with contact lenses made of a soft, water-absorbing plastic they developed.
1971:The soft lens became available for commercial distribution in the United States.
1978:The first toric contact lens was approved for distribution in the United States.
1979:The first rigid gas permeable (RGP) contact lens made of co-polymers PMMA and silicone became available for commercial distribution. Many silicone- acrylate lenses are now available.
1980:A tinted daily wear soft lens became available for commercial distribution.
1981:Extended wear soft lenses became available for commercial distribution.
1982:Bifocal daily wear soft contact lenses became available for commercial distribution.
1983:The first tinted RGP lens became available for commercial distribution.
1986:An extended wear RGP lens became available for commercial distribution.
1987:Disposable soft contact lenses became available for commercial distribution; a soft contact lens to change eye color became available for commercial distribution; first multipurpose lens care product made available for commercial distribution.

A new formulation of fluorosilicone acrylate material for RGP lenses became available for commercial distribution.

1991:Planned replacement contact lenses now available on the market.

Daily-wear two-week replacement lenses now available on the market.

1992:Disposable tinted contact lenses available on the market.
1995:Daily disposable lenses available on the market; RGP lenses with low silicone content / high Dk fluorosilicone acrylates became available.
1996:First disposable lenses using ultra-violet absorber are available in the U.S.
1998:First multifocal disposable soft lenses available.
1999New generation extended wear soft lenses introduced