Some believe that the sketches made by the artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci about 1508 were intended to indicate contact lenses. He experimented by dissecting eyes and developing his own theories about eyes and how they work. His ideas were at odds with his peers when he correctly concluded that vision is a result of the eye receiving rays of light.
Drawing by Leonardo da Vinci
In 1636 Frenchman René Descartes (1596 – 1650) arrived at the innovative idea of corneal lenses by placing a tube full of water over the cornea to correct a person’s vision. His idea was that this would theoretically lengthen the eye’s axis and therefore increase the size of the image. The practical problem with this idea was that the tube would have been too thick to allow blinking.
Drawing by René Descartes
The first contact lenses to have been worn were invented by the German Ophthalmologist Adolf Gaston Eugen Fick (1852 – 1937) around 1888. Fick was one of the first to actually experiment with contact lenses. They were made from heavy brown glass and he tested them on rabbits first, then himself and a group of volunteers. Fick’s lens was large, unwieldy, and could only be worn for a couple of hours at a time.
The others experimenting with contact lenses at the same time were German glassblower F.A. Muller, an optician from Paris called Edouard Kalt, and August Müller (1864 – 1949), a medical student from Germany who corrected his own severe myopia with a more convenient glass-blown scleral contact lens of his own manufacture in 1888. However his lenses were difficult to fit, painful to wear, and the eye had to be anaesthetised before fitting the lens.
The lenses developed by these men were called Glass Scleral lenses as they were designed to cover the entire corneal surface and rest on the white, or sclera, of the eye. They were the standard form of contact lens until the invention of Perspex and Plexiglass in the 1930s. These plastics made it possible to produce lightweight, transparent contact lenses that were easy to manufacture, unbreakable and scratch resistant which quickly made glass contact lenses obsolete. However they were still scleral lenses covering the entire eye and could only be worn for a few hours per day.
The first “corneal” lenses were developed in 1948 by an English optical technician called Kevin Touhy. Apparently in the process of sanding down a plastic lens the lens broke leaving only the portion that covered the cornea intact. So he sanded off the sharp edges and fitted the lens to his own eye. He discovered that the lens still worked and stayed in place even if he blinked. His ‘invention’ was the forerunner of the lens technologies that exist today.