Leonardo Da Vinci first hypothesized the use of glass and water to alter an individual’s vision
From there, Rene Descartes built on Da Vinci’s theory by utilizing a tube mechanism
After some 300 years, and through the hard work of many researchers, Da Vinci’s initial hypothesis was brought to life with the first contact lens
The history of the contact lens goes much further back than a lot of people realize. Though it would seem obvious to assume that the contact lens came after the invention of the glasses, as a more convenient and more subtle option, the reality is that the famed painter of the Mona Lisa had a lot more to do with it than any modern optometrist.
Da Vinci’s musings start out long before modern ophthalmologists took to the scene, and it all started via a bowl of water. In Da Vinci’s ‘Codex of the Eye’ first published in 1508, the talented inventor hypothesized that the submersion of an individual’s head in a bowl of water could alter, and potentially improve that individual’s eyesight.
Da Vinci took his hypothesis even further when he actually created a glass lens with a funnel attached to one side, where water could be poured into it to create a mobile ‘bowl of water’ to alter vision. Despite its impracticalities, this is regarded as the very first incarnation of the contact lens as we know them today.
By Jove, it works! But wait, shouldn’t I be able to blink?
Further developments didn’t occur until some one hundred years later. French scientist Rene Descartes discovered Da Vinci’s research and began to build upon it. He crafted a glass tube that would be placed directly in contact with the cornea (which is where the term ‘contact’ lens originates). This glass tube was filled with liquid and enhanced vision in much the same way Da Vinci had proposed.
However, Descartes’ glass tube made it almost impossible to blink, which was an impracticality that couldn’t be overlooked. Blinking is pretty important for the human eye. No answer to this problem was produced, and Descartes abandoned his research. Improvements to this design would not arrive for another couple of centuries.
Using Descartes’ research as inspiration, in the same way Descartes had used Da Vinci’s, the English scientist Thomas Young began building on the creation of the contact lens in 1801. He innovated Descartes’ design by reducing the size of the glass tube to a quarter of an inch and then stuck the tube to his eyeball with wax.
These days, sticking glass to your eyeball with wax isn’t exactly considered good practice, but we have to give Young kudos on this one. He was attempting to innovate, and that sometimes puts you in some sticky situations. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out precisely as Young may have hoped.
All the right ideas, just not at the right time
In fact, it wasn’t until 1845 that the use of contact lenses was proposed as a way to fix common ophthalmic problems such as nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatism. English scientist Sir John Herschel was the first to hypothesize that a replication of the cornea could assist with eyesight.
Unfortunately, Herschel lacked the necessary technology to test such a hypothesis without disastrous results, and his scientific musings would go unanswered for another one hundred years.
Though it took over three hundred years to develop and implement, Da Vinci’s initial thought process finally reached completion
The early 1880s is the time where revolutionary advancements in contact lenses were made. New ways to cut glass in much thinner, more precise ways meant that the contact lens could be created and placed atop an eye in a way that allowed for blinking.
Credit for the actual invention of the contact lens goes between three men: Dr. Adolf Fick, Eugene Cult, and Louis J. Girard. Still, there is no denying the ripple effect Da Vinci’s influential research had upon the contact lens. Though it took over three hundred years to develop and implement, Da Vinci’s initial thought process finally reached completion. Anything worth doing takes time.
A deeper dive – Related reading on the 101
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