Contact lenses – 1961’s Christmas present to the world

Otto Wichterle

Soft contact lenses were invented by Czech scientist Otto Wichterle around Christmas time in 1961. It was no easy feat. In fact, in the beginning of that year, research into developing contact lenses was cancelled by the Czechoslovak Ministry of Health.

Luckily, Otto Wichterle did not give up and continued his research at home. The idea of correcting vision by using contact lenses had already come up earlier. However, its practical implementation had long been a tough nut to crack. There were attempts to create contact lenses out of rare metals for example. Wichterle came up with the idea of creating them out of plastics, specifically hydrofoil gels. However, these contact lenses were still very uncomfortable for wearers and could only be used for experimental reasons by brave patients.

Contact lens | Photo: Gedesby1989,  Pixabay,  CC0 1.0 DEED

What ended up playing the key role in the development of the modern soft contact lens was, apart from Wichterle’s mind, the children’s playset Merkur. With his funding cut, the Czech scientist used the toy building set to develop the soft contact lens machine at home. Initially, it was powered by a motor from a bicycle’s dynamo, later Wichterle switched to using a gramophone motor. The machine worked and the method for creating the soft contact lens had finaly been developed.

Unfortunately, the Czechoslovak state leadership did not have the courage, or the foresight, to begin mass producing this innovation and bring soft contact lenses onto the world market. The patent was instead bought by the US company Flexible Contact Lens Corporation and Bausch & Lomb. They started mass producing the lenses in 1971, after the FDA approved their introduction onto the market.

Nevertheless, soft contact lenses will always remain a success of Czech science, which helped change the lives of millions of people across the world.