Contact lenses may strike most people as a modern invention, and it is true that contact lens wearers today have a lot to thank modern technology for. On the other hand, the idea that eventually came to develop into contact lenses as we know them today is very old.
In 1508, Leonardo Da Vinci wrote the essay Codex of the eye, Manual D., when trying to understand the mechanisms of the eye. Just over a century later, Rene Descartes started experimenting with glass tubes, filling them with liquid and placing them on the cornea. He managed to correct vision but was unable to create a device which allowed the wearer to blink.
By the end of the 19th century, devices principally similar to today's contact lenses had been developed, including jelly-filled glass capsules and so called eye cups, and the German physiologist Adolf Eugen Fick finally fitted the first ever contact lens. These have been referred to as afocal sclera shells, and before allowing a small group of guinea pigs to try them, the inventor tested the contact lenses first on rabbits and then on himself. The result was a 20mm hand-blown glass contact lens which could only be worn for a few hours at a time.
The 1930s saw the first ever plastic contact lenses, and by the end of the 1940s smaller, corneal lenses came about, wearable for up to 16 hours. These so called PMMA lenses soon became very popular and made available for the masses, but they had one big disadvantage: they didn't let enough oxygen through to the cornea, resulting in high risks of eye infections and discomfort.
That was when oxygen-permeable contact lenses were invented, first in the form of rigid lenses and eventually as soft contacts. In 1999 silicone hydrogels were launched, offering a unique combination of the comfort of hydrogels and the superb gas-permeability of silicone.
Over the years, contact lenses have gone from expensive health care luxury to affordable eye care necessity. A contact lens which could in the 1980s have cost £200 for one pair can today be found online with the same price tag for nearly a two-year supply. The online market is growing rapidly, and in Sweden in particular contact lens wearers have taken to the web. With 30% of wearers in Sweden buying their lenses online, Germany, the United States and Canada are joining in this trend with about 20% of contact lens consumers hitting the internet shops.
Thanks to a recent addition to the Opticians Act, Opticians are now legally obliged to produce a physical copy of the prescription at the end of a contact lens consultation, making shopping around for bargain contact lenses both safe and easy.