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A Clear Vision of Innovation: The History of Contact Lenses

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

In the world of vision correction, contact lenses stand as a testament to human ingenuity and the relentless pursuit of a clearer, more comfortable way to see. The history of contact lenses is a fascinating journey through centuries of innovation, from ancient concepts to modern marvels. In this blog, we will explore the remarkable evolution of contact lenses and the pioneering individuals who played pivotal roles in their development.

Ancient Beginnings: Early Concepts of Contact Lenses

The idea of placing a transparent device on the eye to correct vision dates back to ancient times. It is believed that the legendary Roman philosopher Seneca (4 BC - 65 AD) described the concept of using a glass globe filled with water as a magnifying aid for reading. However, it wasn't until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that significant progress was made in the development of contact lenses.

Leonardo da Vinci & the Visionaries

The Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci is often credited with the earliest recorded sketches of contact lenses. In 1508, he produced detailed drawings of what he called "skiascopia," which depicted a corneal lens placed directly on the eye's surface. Though da Vinci's designs were never realized during his lifetime, they set the stage for future breakthroughs.

The Glass Blowers & the Birth of the Scleral Lens

In the late 19th century, glass blowers and inventors began experimenting with the creation of scleral lenses, which were large, bowl-shaped devices that covered the entire eye. August Müller, a German glassblower, is credited with creating the first scleral lens in 1887. These early lenses, while effective for vision correction, were cumbersome and uncomfortable to wear due to their size and weight.

The Leap Forward: PMMA & the First Modern Contact Lenses

The development of polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) in the 1930s marked a significant milestone in the history of contact lenses. This transparent, lightweight, and biocompatible material enabled the creation of smaller, more comfortable lenses that could be worn directly on the cornea. In 1948, Kevin Tuohy and George Butterfield introduced the world to the first PMMA contact lenses, heralding a new era of vision correction.

The Soft Lens Revolution

While PMMA lenses offered improved comfort compared to scleral lenses, they still had limitations, particularly in terms of oxygen permeability. In 1961, chemist Otto Wichterle and his team introduced the world to hydrogel soft contact lenses. These soft lenses, made of water-absorbing materials, allowed for better oxygen transmission to the eye and increased comfort. The first commercially successful soft contact lenses were marketed by Bausch & Lomb under the name "Soflens" in 1971.

The Astigmatism Solution: Toric Lenses

The 1970s also witnessed the introduction of toric lenses, designed to correct astigmatism. These specialized contact lenses have different powers in different meridians of the lens and are carefully crafted to fit the unique shape of the eye. The availability of toric lenses expanded the range of vision problems that could be corrected with contact lenses.

Gas Permeable & Hybrid Lenses

The 1980s saw the development of gas permeable (GP) contact lenses, which provided even better oxygen permeability and were ideal for individuals with specific vision needs. These lenses were particularly helpful in managing conditions like keratoconus, where the cornea takes on an irregular shape.

Hybrid lenses, introduced in the 1990s, combined the benefits of soft and GP lenses. They featured a soft outer skirt for comfort and a GP center for precise vision correction. Hybrid lenses became a valuable option for those seeking both comfort and visual acuity.

Daily Disposables & Silicone Hydrogels

The turn of the 21st century brought innovations like daily disposable contact lenses, which offered convenience and reduced the risk of infection. Additionally, the introduction of silicone hydrogel materials allowed for even higher oxygen transmission to the cornea, making extended and overnight wear safer.

Today and Beyond

The history of contact lenses is a testament to human creativity and the relentless pursuit of improved vision correction. Today, contact lenses come in an astonishing variety of types, materials, and the future of contact lens technology continues to evolve, with ongoing research into advanced materials, custom-made lenses, and smart contact lenses with embedded sensors for monitoring health metrics. These innovations promise to make contact lenses an even more comfortable and effective vision correction solution.

Order Contact Lenses at Medical Center Opticians

The history of contact lenses is a testament to human innovation and the unwavering pursuit of improved vision correction. Since the 1960s, Medical Center Opticians has helped sell that innovation in the city of Pittsburgh. Order contacts on-line or schedule an appointment today and look your very best with new contact lenses.

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