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Visual Innovation: The Invention of Contact Lenses

Did you know that contact lenses were developed before the band-aid? In fact, as far back as the 1500s, Leonardo da Vinci examined how glass and water affected vision, and he sketched several optical devices that displayed the same principles as contact lenses. However, the first contact lenses were not made until several centuries later. The contact lens is the product of a true amalgamation of inventive minds, and it's difficult to assign credit to just one. In 1888, Adolf Eugene Fick described the first refractive contact lens as a very thin and small glass bowl. The 'contact spectacle' as he called it, was placed on the eye, and the area between the bowl and the eyeball was filled with a tear-like liquid. In that same year, Eugene Kalt described a lens used to treat keratoconus by pressing down on the cornea. One year later, a medical student in Germany, August Miller, started creating his own contact lenses shaped to the curvature of the cornea. I myself wear contact lenses, and it can be difficult enough to get them onto my eyeballs without trouble from a stray eyelash or an involuntary and ill-timed blink. Given that, it's perplexing to me that the original contact lenses were actually made of glass. As might be expected, these early lenses caused too much eye irritation to be effective. In fact, it wasn't until William Feinbloom made the first plastic contact lenses in 1936 that they truly became a viable solution for the public.