History of the Contact Lens
The concept for contact lenses is credited to Leonardo da Vinci. Five hundred years ago, he sketched out his ideas for changing the refractive power of the eye by direct contact with water. Later inventors experimented with changing the correcting powers by looking through water and glass. About 120 years ago German inventors first made an actual contact lens and placed it on an eye. Those first contact lenses, called scleral lenses, were made of glass, and they fit over the sclera (the white part of the eye) as well as the cornea.
More than a half-century ago, the first modern contact lens was manufactured. It was made of hard plastic. (The technical name is PMMA.) It rested upon the tear film of the eye. The smaller size and lighter weight of this corneal contact lens made it far more comfortable than the scleral lens. The next generation of “hard” lenses appeared in the 1970s with materials that allowed oxygen to flow through them to maintain eye health and enhance comfort. Today, these materials are constantly being improved so that they offer better oxygen flow, clear, stable vision and comfort.
Simultaneously to the development of hard lenses, chemists were experimenting with new “softer” plastics and discovered HEMA. This water-absorbing polymer was used to make a thin and flexible contact lens that draped over the eye, and the “soft contact lens” was born. Soft contact lenses were introduced in this country in 1971, and patients were amazed by their immediate comfort. The contact lens wearing population exploded. Many subsequent innovations fueled that growth. The ensuing years saw lenses that can be worn overnight, colored lenses that enhance or even change eye color, as well as new designs that allow aging eyes and irregularly shaped eyes to see clearly at all distances. With manufacturing advances and economies of scale, we now have disposable contact lenses that greatly enhance convenience, comfort and affordability.
Contact lens technology continues to advance. In the past decade, silicone-hydrogel lenses that are hyper-oxygen permeable have become prevalent. These lenses can be worn on a daily basis or, in certain cases, left in overnight for up to 30-days of continuous wear. Many patients who considered laser vision correction find that silicone hydrogel lenses are an appealing non-surgical alternative.
Contact lens designs — for virtually any vision need — are available in disposable modalities. These make trying contact lenses economical and caring for them simple.
With advances in lens design and materials have come advances in lens care. The first lens care systems included heat and hydrogen peroxide disinfection, as well as enzymatic cleaners to remove protein deposits. These methods largely have given way to the simplicity of one-bottle multipurpose care solutions. Some care systems require digital cleaning; others are “no-rub” systems. Today, good lens care compliance is easy. Fortunately, we live in a time when contact lenses provide an unprecedented level of visual performance and comfort, along with ease of care. Contact lenses have come closer than ever before to restoring the natural vision and comfort that nature may not have handed us.