Purpose. The history of contact lenses has occurred in the latter half of the 20th century. In particular, events in the 1970s through the 1980s related to the invention of soft, hydrogel contact lenses have revolutionized the contact lens industry and the eye care attached to it. This article recounts that history from the perspective of market forces, inventions, and discoveries about the physiologic functioning of the cornea.
Methods. The relevant literature is critically reviewed.
Results. Discoveries about the oxygen needs of the cornea and consumer pressure for clear, comfortable, around-the-clock vision have resulted in a history of rigid gas permeable and soft lenses that leads to today's contact lens picture. The short-term and long-term effects of chronic hypoxia and the levels of lens oxygen transmissiblity necessary to avoid them have been well-described. The advent of the soft lens, followed by the “human experiment” with initial extended-wear modalities, led to the advent of the disposable soft contact lens.
Conclusions. In the past 25 years, the development and wide acceptance of soft contact lenses have revolutionized the management of refractive error and corneal diseases.