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The History of Contact Lenses

Posted by techmatters 08/04/2015 0 Comment(s)

A look inside the development and progression of contact lenses over the years

With over 125 million contact lens wearers worldwide, it’s hard to believe that the modern, comfortable, compact and versatile contact lenses we are familiar with were once made from glass shells filled with jelly[i], [ii].

It’s certainly no lie that contact lenses weren’t invented overnight. In fact, if the history books are anything to go by, the development of contact lenses has been more than five centuries worth of trial and error. Yet, where did it all begin?

It may come as a surprise that the man behind the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci, was also responsible for the conceptualisation of contact lenses. In 1508, da Vinci was the first recorded person to look at the correlation between optics of the human eye and water to correct vision impairment, and was subsequently the first to produce sketches of contact lenses[iii].

However, da Vinci’s theory of water and refraction wasn’t revisited again until 1636 when French Philosopher, René Descartes sketched and designed a more realistic protruding contact lens, which yet again did not progress due to incompatible technology and resources at the time.

It was not until almost 200 years later in 1801 that scientist, Thomas Young brought da Vinci and Descartes’ designs to life and trialled the first contact lens, by sticking it to his eye with wax (ouch!) [iv]

With the advancement in medicine and the introduction of anaesthesia in 1884, contact lenses advanced as corneal moulding was made possible. In the same decade, inventors Adolf Fic, Eugene Cult and August Mueller all independently invented glass contact lenses[v]. 

Yet, what was the real turning point for modern contact lenses?

Answer: the introduction of plastic, which replaced the rigid and uncomfortable glass contact lenses and the introduction of smaller and more comfortable contact lenses that were designed to cover only the cornea.

In the 1930s, plastic contact lenses were produced and manufactured. The lightweight and transparent nature of plastic meant that contact lenses were now unbreakable, scratch resistant and unlikely to slide around. 

A little over a decade later in 1947, Optician Kevin Touhy introduced a contact lens that was much smaller and comfortable in size, which was designed to cover only the cornea[vi].   Not only did this allow for more attractive, comfortable and easier to wear contact lenses, it also paved the pathway for future alterations, which allowed contact lenses to be worn in different kinds of weather conditions and for different activities, including for sport and leisure.

Since the inception of contact lenses, we’ve seen many new formulas and concepts for improving the quality and effectiveness over the decades. There’s no doubting that we’ve certainly come a long way in terms of creating practical, durable and comfortable contact lenses to correct an array of vision problems. From the invention of soft contact lenses in 1971 right through to the introduction of disposable lenses in 1988, it’s safe to say that the progression of contact lenses is only just beginning. So, what do you think will be next?


[i]   Eiden, SB 2011, ‘Consider Treating Lens-Related Dry Eye With Pharmaceuticals’, Contact Lens Spectrum, <>

[ii] Key, JE 2007, ‘Development of contact lenses and their worldwide use’, Eye Contact Lens, vol 33, no. 6, pp. 362 -363.

[iii] The Development of Contact Lenses 1984, ‘The Contact Lens Industry: Structure, Competition, and Public Policy’, vol. 31, 99. 9-12, <>

[iv] The College of Optometrists 2015, Early Contact Glasses, London, England, viewed 23 March 2015, <

[v] Efron, N 2000, ‘Contact lens practice and a very soft opinion’, Clinical & Experimental Optometry, vol. 83, pp. 243-245.

[vi] Phillips A J & Speedwell L 1997, Contact Lenses: 4th Edition, Butterworth-Heinemann, Boston,