Vial Lenses to Modern Vision: Tracing the Evolution of Contact Lenses

Vial contact lenses are worn for up to a year and are removed every night before going to bed. The lenses are cleaned and sterilized daily and are available in both soft and rigid gas-permeable lenses.

Although the contact lens is a relatively new invention, the idea of correcting vision by placing something directly on the cornea to correct vision has been discussed for centuries. In 1636, René Descartes proposed placing a glass tube filled with water directly over the cornea. Unfortunately, Descartes’ idea was unfeasible because it prohibited blinking. In 1801, Thomas Young produced a liquid-filled “eye-cup.” His design, though, was not intended to correct refraction errors.

In 1845 John Herschel came up with two ideas: the initial idea was to administer “a spherical capsule of glass filled with animal jelly,” and the subsequent idea was to take “the mold of the cornea and imprint it on some sort of transparent medium.” These ideas were not tested but were integral to the future proposals for contact lenses.

The first successful contact lens was created in 1887 by Adolf Eugen Fick, a German Ophthalmologist.  He first fabricated afocal scleral contact shells to be fitted to the eyes of rabbits.  He then tried them on himself and then a small group of volunteers. Fick’s lens, however, was uncomfortable and could only be worn for a couple of hours before it had to be removed.  It wasn’t until 1936, when Dr. William Feinbloom introduced plastic to the manufacturing of contact lenses, that the lenses were even remotely comfortable.

The modern contact lens that we are familiar with today came into existence in 1947, when American Kevin Touhy created the corneal lens that covered the cornea only, as opposed to the scleral lens, which covered the entire eye.  This contact lens was still uncomfortable to wear and did not let oxygen into the eye.  It was not until 1971 that Bausch and Lomb, after much research and expenditure, obtained approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to market their hydrogel lenses, commonly referred to as “soft” contact lenses.

In 1979, the rigid gas-permeable contact lens was introduced, which offered a lens that allowed oxygen to enter the eye, while giving the optical clarity and ease of handling of a hard lens.  In 1980, the first tinted lenses, in 1981, the first extended-wear lenses, and in 1982, the first bifocal contact lenses were available.