Contact lens resting on tip of a finger in Dekalb, ILIn 2010 it was estimated that more than 30 million people in the United States wore contact lenses, making it a billion dollar industry that will only grow with increases in population size and global access to comprehensive eye care. Despite contacts’ prevalence in the United States and around the world, many are unaware that the history of these optical devices stretches back more than 500 years.

The Origins of Contacts

Leonardo da Vinci, the famous Italian polymath, was quite interested in the science of optics. In his book ‘Codex of the Eye,’ written in 1508, he theorized that peering through a combination of curved glass and water would correct a person’s vision. It wasn’t until 1887 that F. E. Muller, a German glassblower, made the first glass lenses that could be worn somewhat comfortably over the eye. These early models were made of thick glass, however, and choked off oxygen to the eye surface. While relatively effective at correcting vision, they could only be worn for short periods.

Making Contacts Practical

Contacts came of age with the advent of plastics. Lenses were first made with combinations of plastic and glass, and then, shortly after World War II, plastic only. These new lenses were also smaller, covering only the cornea, and were applied with an aqueous solution that allowed some oxygen to refresh the cornea. The final step came in the 1970s with the invention of gas-permeable contact lenses, which allowed oxygen to freely reach the surface of the eye, and allowed contacts to be worn comfortably for extended periods of time.

Today, contact lenses are crafted to fit the individual wearer in state-of-the-art optical laboratories. They provide an alternative when glasses are not practical or fashionable, and they help correct a wide range of vision problems. Over more than 500 years, optical science has advanced to develop modern contact lenses.