Thursday, June 2, 2022

History of the Contact Lenses

Amber Schamel Lemus Christian historical author
Blogger: Amber Schamel

As we continue with our series of a History of Ordinary Things, we come to the contact lenses. 

An artist's depiction of Da Vinci's method.
Photo by Tbuffie (CC 2.0)
Like many inventions, Leonardo Da Vinci's theories are where it all started. Da Vinci theorized that sticking one's head into a glass bowl of water would alter the vision. He even created a glass lens, but it was impractical, and he did not intend the theory to be used to correct vision, but simply explore the mechanisms of accommodation.

In 1636, a French scientist by the name of Rene Descartes reviewed Da Vinci's work and came up with a new theory:  a glass tube filled with water could be placed in direct contact with the cornea of the eye to enhance vision. While this idea somewhat worked, it was also impractical because the wearer of said lens could not even blink while wearing the contraption. 

It would be nearly two centuries before someone once again took on the challenge to explore the possibilities of contact lenses. 

Around 1801, Thomas Young -this time a scientist from England- revisited Descartes' idea. He changed the design by reducing the size of the glass tube to one-fourth of an inch, and proceeded to use wax to stick the water-filled lenses to his eyeball. Brave man, if you ask me. While Mr. Young was the first one to accurately describe astigmatism and greatly advanced the field of eye care, his device didn't work, nor was it practical. 

Again, the frontier of improving eyesight with contact lenses was abandoned. 

About forty years later, an English physicist, Sir John Herschel, hypothesized that making a mold of the cornea might produce lenses that could correct vision. However, he lacked the technology to test his hypothesis, so his theory remained speculation for decades. 

Swiss Physician, Adolf Fick
Public Domain

The late 1800's saw a great leap in technology that aided the development of contact lenses, including progressions in glass production, cutting and shaping tech. Three men independently designed glass lenses that fit in the eye, allowing the wearer to blink, however the discovery is usually credited to Swiss doctor Adolf Fick, who was the author of a treatise entitled "A Contact Spectacle." 

The first successful contact lens was fitted in 1888. They were made of glass. And they covered the entire front of the eyeball. Ay! Just thinking about that makes my eyes hurt.

Obviously, these primal lenses had two major problems. First, the eye is the only organ in the body that does not get its oxygen supply from the blood. They get their oxygen directly from the air. This becomes a problem when you cover all exposed parts of it with glass. The eyes can't breathe, which causes pain, redness, and hazy vision. Wait...isn't that what we're trying to correct here? 

The second problem was that the glass lenses were 18-21mm in diameter, which made the weight of the lenses super uncomfortable to wear. 

In the end, these lenses could not be worn for more than a few hours at a time. And it was this way for the next 60 or so years. 

Scleral lens, with visible outer edge.
By L8rgator at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Finally, in the 1920's, anesthesiology and materials had developed enough that Sir John Herschel's ideas (the English physicist we mentioned a few paragraphs above) could be tested. A doctor Dallos of Hungary perfected a molding method, and soon new plastic materials made a major breakthrough in the practicality of the contact lens. However, the final piece of the puzzle was discovered accidentally. 

Since the scleral lenses covered the entire eye, they still could only be worn for a few hours at a time, because the eye needs to breathe. In 1948, an English optical technician was sanding down a plastic lens when he accidentally messed it up. The part that covered the white of the eye fell off. But he decided to try to utilize it anyway. He smoothed out the edges and popped it in his eye. He was delighted to discover that it still worked, and was far more comfortable, stayed in even when blinking, and would allow the eye to have at least a little air during use. This is how Kevin Touhy became the inventor of the corneal lens, which is the most common one in use today. 

From there, the technology took off. Innovative folks came up with thinner lenses, curved the lenses, and pioneered plastic materials that allowed the eye to breathe through the lens. That's why today, contact wearers can even keep the lens in their eyes overnight.

The optical industry has certainly come a long way in the past seventy five years!

Are you a contact lens wearer? Can you imagine wearing one of the first specimens?


Two-time winner of the Christian Indie Award for historical fiction, Amber Schamel writes riveting stories that bring HIStory to life. She has a passion for travel, history, books and her Savior. This combination results in what her readers call "historical fiction at its finest".

She lives near the Ozarks in her "casita" with her prince charming. Between enjoying life as a boy mom, and spinning stories out of soap bubbles, Amber loves to connect with readers and hang out on Goodreads with other bookish peoples.

Amber is a proud member of the American Christian Fiction Writers Association. Visit her online at and download a FREE story by subscribing to her Newsletter!


  1. Thanks for posting today. I have worn glasses since I was 8 years old and I haven't been able to stand the thought of sticking something on my eyeball, even though my son and grandson tout the praises of contacts. It's so interesting how people kept coming back to this idea though.

  2. I started wearing contact lenses sometime in my teens, and wore them regularly for 15-20 years. But at some point my eyes just got tired of them so I started wearing glasses more regularly. And I think as I got older I was less vain!
    The last time I visited the eye doctor she recommended a new lense for me to try that seems to work better! So I am wearing them a bit more often.

  3. Very well written article. It was an awesome article to read. Read more info about ophthalmologist houston tx. Complete rich content and fully informative. I totally Loved it.