The Terrifying Contact Lenses of the University of Oregon

The school’s baffling decision is the culmination of two 120 year-old historical forces.
Adolf Fick, inventor of the contact lens, who knew not the dark force he loosed into the world

In 1888, a German doctor by the name of Adolf Fick invented the first contact lens that could be worn by patients. Scientists had talked about the technology in theory for centuries—Leonard Da Vinci is sometimes credited as being the first to come up with the idea—but it was Fick who tested his design on cadavers and then himself before finally gave them to patients. In the ’30s, other ophthalmologists developed the first plastic lenses; now the little convex sheets are everywhere. In 2004, one industry source estimated that there were approximately 125 million contact lens wearers worldwide. 

Meanwhile, in the 1890s, an ocean away, something was brewing in American higher education. The men leading American universities sought to expand their colleges. To accomplish this, they waged what we’d now recognize as a massive marketing campaign. Advertisements declaiming the splendid, handsome, worldly “college man” appeared in American magazines; colleges spent unprecedented amounts of money to grow their campuses. Princeton, for example, decided to get serious about becoming a global university in 1896, and standardized its Gothic style.

So. Around 120 years ago, contact lenses came materially into being, and, philosophically, something like a “college brand” came into being. Today, the two conspired to create this:

This weekend, when the Oregon Ducks play the Washington Huskies, Oregon cheerleaders will sport those hideous, emerald, marked-with-the-school’s-logo contact lenses. Instead of their irises, beautiful and unique in all the world, they will sport the brand of their state university.

Which: Okay. I suppose I’m glad these women feel so strongly about their university. (A university is a kind of community, after all.) Contact lenses are temporary, unlike the college-themed tattoos that many people wear. Since cheerleaders are supposed to lead cheers, from, uh, far away, it’s a bit odd they would decorate a tiny section of their body—although it’s a concession that they’re performing as much for social media and high-definition television broadcasts as they are the paying audience in the stands.

Custom lenses don’t come cheap, but readers interested in the cash behind Oregon’s program may care to examine Oregon’s $68 million “Football Performance Center.” (College football, still, does not pay its players; college players who get injured aren’t guaranteed their athletic scholarships.)

So perhaps this is just another crazy college football thing, freaky and terrifying though it may be. But I can’t help but dwell on how a higher education institution, meant to free its students’ minds, is endorsing a technology and a fashion which place things that for all the world look like scales over their energetic students’s eyes.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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