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History of Contact Lenses
It has been over five hundred years since Leonardo da Vinci first conceived of the contact lens in his 1508 work "Codex of the Eye." While his was only a sketch, it was the beginning of centuries of contact lens innovation. Many of the first approaches to contact lenses, like Rene Descartes' 1636 glass tube invention, were not practical; however, many of the early concepts did pave the way for the modern contact lens design.
It wasn't until the late 1800s that three different men independently invented the first contact lenses. Ophthalmologists Adolph Eugene Fick (Sweden) and Eugene Kalt (France) devised glass lenses that were meant to correct corneal abnormalities. It was in 1887 when a German glassblower named F.E. Muller produced the first glass eye covering that could be worn and tolerated, and in the same year Adolf Fick also constructed and fit a successful contact lens. While working in Zurich, Fick experimented with fitting scleral contact shells, which sat on the less sensitive rim of tissue around the cornea, on rabbits, on himself, and then on a group of volunteers. Other glass lenses like Fick's were created and tested for several more years, but that changed in 1936, when optometrist William Feinbloom introduced the first plastic lenses.
While the first plastic lenses were lighter and more convenient than their glass counterparts, they were still large lenses that sat on the sclera, which is the white part of the eye. The first "corneal" lenses were developed in 1949; they were much smaller than the scleral lenses and sat only on the cornea rather than across the entirety of the visible ocular surface.
Early corneal contact lenses of the 1950s and 1960s were expensive and fragile. In fact, they spurred an industry of contact lenses insurance. The price was not the only drawback to these lenses. Another disadvantage was that they did not allow oxygen to permeate into the conjunctiva or the cornea. This made it impossible for someone to wear these lenses too long without adverse medical effects, and so throughout the 1970s and 1980s doctors and scientists worked to develop a range of rigid, yet gas permeable materials. These are what we now refer to as "hard lenses."
Soft contacts lenses were also developed around this time, and in 1971 the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first approved the Softlens material. These lenses were prescribed more often and preferred by patients because they were not only gas permeable but also easier to adjust to and more comfortable to wear. It was in 1972, soon after the FDA first approved the material, that Dr. Rishi Agarwal suggested the use of disposable soft contact lenses.
Modern contact lenses continue to evolve. Newer contact lenses take advantage of the benefits of silicone, which has extremely high oxygen permeability; these types of contact lenses are often used for overnight wear. It is not only the materials or the ease of wear of contact lenses that has evolved. The available colors and patterns of cosmetic and costume contact lenses has grown exponentially. People have taken the idea of simply changing their eye color and turned it on its head. Contacts are now available now with spooky patterns, intriguing designs, and even with NFL team logos on them.
Contact lenses have a rich history that dates back to the 1500s, and they are now an everyday part of life for approximately 36 million Americans. While contact lenses have changed and improved significantly from the days of large, unwieldy glass lenses, they continue to change as technology advances. New materials and scientific innovations allow contact lens users to continuously wear their contact lenses or to have a fresh pair for every new day. People with conditions like astigmatism and those who need multifocal lenses can now find a variety of contact lenses to fit their needs, and people with extremely sensitive eyes can find contact lenses that provide UV-A and UV-B protection.