Here’s a little bit about the invention of contact lenses and their initial market launch back in the early 1930s, plus a look at how far the contacts had come by the 1940s.
As painful as this all sounds, these tiny bits of clear glass were absolutely revolutionary for their day. When they were later made instead of plastic, several technological advances over the years helped make them more comfortable than ever.
Spectacles that fit over your eyeballs: Insight on the invention of contact lenses (1931)
The new “contact” glasses are now being tested by eye specialists. They fit directly over the eyeballs without frames.
When Dr E A Fick, a celebrated Swiss eye specialist, invented “contact glasses” back in 1888, he did not dream that these little discs of glass which his patients wore directly on their eyeballs might take the place of the type of spectacles in use all over the world today.
The Swiss doctor was not attempting to make a substitute for spectacles. He was merely trying to find a way to correct a condition known to eye doctors as “keratoconus,” which is a thickening and bulging of the cornea, or lens, of the eye which reduces the power of sight.
About the invention of contact lenses
Recent experiments with “contact glasses” much like those made by Dr Fick more than forty years ago indicate that it is quite possible that small spectacles which fit on the eyeball and which are held in place by the eyelids may someday take the place of the nose glasses and bowed spectacles worn today.
It was Prof. Heine, of Kiel, Germany, who improved upon Dr Fick’s “contact glasses” and, after experimenting with many patients, recently announced that such revolutionary optical aids to vision give promise of being entirely practical.
His first experiments with the little glass discs were with persons afflicted with short-sightedness. It was his belief that such glasses, being so close to the eyeball, could correct short-sightedness better than the usual spectacles the lenses of which are, because of the glasses construction, some distance from the eye.
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The German eye specialist succeeded in correcting several bad cases of short-sightedness with the “contact glasses” which he found superior to ordinary spectacles for the purpose. Because the “contact glasses” were so near the cornea of the eye, they did not need the high “power” of ordinary spectacles.
During his efforts to prove the value of the new-style glasses for short-sighted persons, the doctor observed a feature of the tiny lenses which would seem to make them more efficient than the standard types of spectacles — resting directly on the eyeball, they turn with the eye and the wearer’s vision is never out of focus. He sees as clearly as when he looks to the right or left as he does when looking straight ahead. In whatever direction he moves his eyes, he is always looking through the focal center of the lens.
Prof. Heine is making no extravagant claims for the “contact glasses.” He points out that their apparent mechanical improvement over ordinary glasses and reports the fact that they have proved their worth in correcting short-sightedness.
But, he admits, in their present form, the glasses are a bit uncomfortable for some people, and cannot be worn for long periods. Others quickly become used to the lenses held in place by their eyelids and wore them as comfortably as nose glasses.
The invention of contact lenses: Limitations of the new glasses
The first persons to be fitted with the new glasses wore them for only an hour at a time. Gradually this period was increased as the sensitive eyeball became accustomed to the pressure of the light glass discs. It has been the experience of the majority of wearers of the “contact glasses” that the lenses become more and more comfortable as their eyes get used to the “feel” of them.
Several European eye clinics are interested in the experiments of Prof. Heine and it is likely that many of their patients will be fitted with “contact lenses” so that the devices can be exhaustively studied and, if possible, proved practical for spectacle wearers everywhere.
It might seem to the person who never has seen a pair of the new type glasses that they would be conspicuous and give the wearer a “pop-eyed” appearance, but this is not the case. The little lenses are barely distinguishable from a distance of a few feet and are said to look well on persons to whom ordinary glasses are unbecoming.
The photographs at the top of the page show how the same young woman would look wearing ordinary glasses and “contact” lenses. The comparative profiles are also marked to indicate the visual efficiency of the new lenses over spectacles that are held in place by an arch over the nose and bows caught behind the ears.
In the left corner of this page is a photograph of several of the “contact lenses” showing their bowl-like shape and their actual size. They are really very small, and the glass of which they are made is so clear that they are not discernible a few feet from the wearer.
Of course, if the lenses are more than ordinarily powerful, the eyeball is somewhat magnified to the person looking at a wearer of “contact lenses.” But the magnification is, even then, not so pronounced as is the case with ordinary spectacles.
The drawing above [at right] shows exactly how the new glasses are placed directly on the eyeball and the dotted lines outline the position that the rim of the lens takes on the eyeball underneath the eyelids. When properly fitted, the lens sets snugly against the eye all around its edge and never slips out of position. That’s why it moves with every turn of the eyeball, and enables the wearer always to see the world through glasses that are in perfect focus.
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New contact lens: Invisible glasses are comfortable and easy to fit (1946)
From LIFE Oct 14, 1946
Most of the millions of people who wear eyeglasses have heard of contact lenses, which have been made and sold for many years.
Lying inside the eyelid right over the eyeball, contact lenses are all but invisible when worn. In place, they are practically unbreakable, protect the eyes instead of endangering them.
But despite these special advantages, a relatively small number of people have given up their old spectacles for the new [plastic] lenses. The long and often uncomfortable fitting process required for contact lenses seemed more trouble than it was worth.
For several years William Feinbloom, New York optometrist, has worked on the problem of developing a contact lens with all the advantages and none of the drawbacks of the existing kinds.
Designed to lie against the surface of the eye, lenses of the standard type had to be ground to an exact fit so that pressure would be equal over the entire area of contact. If the job was not perfect, the eye became irritated.
Not long ago, Feinbloom devised a plastic lens to solve the fitting problem. It rests on the eye as a cone rests on a ball. The area of contact, always a source of trouble in the past, is reduced to a minimum, and the job of fitting is made simple and painless.
From a small series of cone-shaped lenses varying slightly in size and angle, he is able to fit almost any eye in one sitting. His patients feel so little discomfort that they can wear the lenses for four hours at the start, later for as long as they wish.
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