Stories of innovation: Contact lenses

Stories of innovation: Contact lenses

What: Contact lenses

Who: Leonardo da Vinci may have come up with the idea in 1508, but Otto Wichterle and Drahoslav Lim are the blokes who invented the soft contact lens which fits effortlessly onto the eyeball today.

When: Slowly developed over the centuries with the major breakthrough coming in 1959.

The story: In 1636, French philosopher René Descartes designed a prototype which consisted of a water-filled glass tube with a microscope lens attached. The only major flaw was you couldn’t blink otherwise the lens would fall out. In the 19th century Swiss physician Adolph Fick developed a lens that stayed attached to the eye after thorough testing on himself and his pet rabbits. (Poor bunnies!) But these rigid contact lenses were usurped by the soft lens when Wichterle and Drahoslav succeeded in developing a hydrogel lens that absorbed up to 40 percent of water and sat comfortably on the eye.

What makes this story great is that Wichterle produced the first hydrogel lens using a home-made machine constructed from a children's toy-building kit and a few bits of junk from the garage. Wichterle then developed new machines which could spin-cast more lenses, allowing him to produce thousands of pairs in only four months. Since then, the quality of contact lenses has advanced rapidly, but none of it would have been possible if Wichterle hadn't been playing with his son's toys. 

Impact and legacy: Whether to correct vision, change eye colour, or protect a damaged eye, contact lenses are used by hundreds of millions of people around the world every day. Dozens of new types of contact lenses have been created to suit the various needs of the consumer population, including pairs for daily, extended or continuous use. The global contact lens market is expected to reach over $10 billion by 2015, and thousands around the globe can be thankful for Wichterle's contribution. 

How good is your vision? Have all eyes on your innovation by entering the 2013 New Zealand Innovation Awards here and get the opportunity to take it to the world.