The Gift of Vision — Contact Lenses


Imagine you’re living in the 1800’s. Now imagine that you have terrible vision, and keep breaking your glasses. For your birthday in 1888, you get a small box with a pair of glass lenses in it the size of your eyes. Congratulations, you’ve received the first pair of contact lenses! That’s right, contacts have been around since the 1880’s. The idea was first illustrated by the great Leonardo Da Vinci in 1508, but it wasn’t until 1887 that German Adolf Fick developed the first working pair of lenses. 50 years later another German by the name of Heinrich Wohlk produced the first set of fully plastic lenses, and in 1949 the first lenses to only sit on the eyes cornea were released. From there, scientists and researchers tweaked and modified their own versions of contacts, thinner lenses, different materials, a concave design.


Now imagine having a pair of dimes in each eye and you get an idea for how thick contacts back then were. This and the flow of oxygen to the cornea proved to be the biggest problems of contacts. When Czech chemist Otto Wichterle developed the new type of plastic hydrogel in 1958, ophthalmologists around the world used his new patent to develop better iterations of lenses. One of the first to do so was Robert Morrison, who began producing the first set of hydrogel soft lenses that could be molded to a specific eye. From there scientists and companies around the world began creating hydrogel soft lenses, improving upon the design and eventually allowing for overnight wear of contacts. In 1987 the introduction of disposable soft lenses rocked in the industry, causing a dramatic decrease in contact lens prices. For the first time, people could buy contact lenses without having to worry about losing one and being forced to pay for a replacement. Nine years later one day disposable lenses were introduced, making them even more available and affordable, with improvements to the design and material of lenses happening every year. In 2002 silicone hydrogel lenses were introduced to the market, which are what 90% of contacts today are made out of.

From a piece of glass that would sit over your eye, to personally molded silicone lenses, it’s amazing how fast contact lens technology has advanced since their debut in 1888. Today it’s estimated that over 40 million North Americans use contact lenses, with a global market revenue of over $12 billion. Needless to say, contact lenses are extremely successful, and one of the most underrated inventions in recent history.


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