It should come as no surprise that the contact lens, like most other things, was invented by Leonardo da Vinci back in the 16th century.
However, it was just a sketch, and it would take another 300 years in the history of contact lenses before an actual contact lens was produced. In the end of the 19th century, experiments with contacts of glass were performed by physicians and opticians in Germany, Switzerland and France, building on the idea of British astronomer Herschel of fitting the lens perfectly to the eyes surface using a mold of the wearer's eye.
Those first heavy glass contact lenses covered the entire eye and didn't let any oxygen through, making them very uncomfortable to the eye.
Hard plastic materials were introduced in contact lenses by American opticians in the thirties and forties. First as a band of plastic around a central piece that was still made of glass, and later as lenses made completely of plastic. At the beginning of the fifties, the hard plastic lenses still covered the entire cornea, but the diameter and thickness of lenses diminished gradually until reaching today's design towards the beginning of the seventies.
Even after 40 years of contact lens designs, the hard plastic contact lenses were still thought as rather uncomfortable by many people.
In 1961, Czechoslovakian chemists made the world's first soft contact lens using a water-absorbing, soft plastic material, that they had invented, called HEMA. This work later led to the first commercial introduction of soft contact lenses by Bausch & Lomb. The year was 1971.
Being thinner and more comfortable than hard contacts, the new softer lenses made the wearing of contact lenses a real possibility for many more people. Today around 90% of contact lenses sold in the U.S. are soft lenses.
The development of contact lenses is still ongoing, and we have seen a number of new inventions since the early seventies, making lenses more and more comfortable, while more and more effective: toric soft lenses, rigid gas permeable lenses (RGP), extended-wear soft contacts, bifocal daily-wear soft contact lenses, tinted RGP lenses, extended wear RGP lenses, disposable soft contact lenses, soft contacts to change eye color, UV protecting lenses, and so on.