The First Soft Contact Lenses Were Created With a Toy Construction Set

Wichterle's contact-making apparatus, now in the Merkur MuseumJanSuchy/Wikimedia

In 1961, Otto Wichterle had time to fiddle around. Three years before, he had been the dean of Prague's Institute for Chemical Technology. And then, all of a sudden, he wasn't. In Soviet-era Czechoslovakia, Wichterle was not predictable enough, politically, to hold that high-ranking of a job. He had always been the type of man to speak out: In 1942, when Nazi Germany occupied his country, he ended up in jail for advocating too loudly for personal rights.

Before he had lost his, job, though, Wichterle had invented a water-loving polymer—hydrogel poly-hydroxyethyl methacrylate—that was thin and transparent. He had tried, at one point, to mould them into soft contact lenses, but the lenses' edges had been jagged—no good for sensitive eyes.

The problem, he kept thinking, was not the material but the method. "Because he constantly observed various surrounding phenomena, he noticed that the finest parabolic plane is created by mixing sugar in coffee," his wife, Lidia, a doctor, would later remember. If he could spin his polymer like he spun his coffee, he thought… But the state's ministry of health rejected his request to pursue the idea.

Just before Christmas of 1961, he tested it anyway. He built a machine that with a rotating mould out of his sons' toy construction set and a small motor. (Some accounts have it as his sons' bicycle motor, others as an engine from a gramophone. This one says he used the bicycle motor first and subbed in the gramophone's when scaling up the first model.)

In 1960, Wichterle described his work in Nature; in 1963, he patented it.

The Czech government sold that patent to an American entrepreneur, and soft contact lenses went on to allow rom-com heroines in the midst of a makeover montage everywhere to shed their clunky glasses and to become, in a widely accepted sense, beautiful.

After his success, Wichterle was allowed to set up his own lab again, until in 1968, his participation in the Prague Spring lost him that one too. Almost 25 years later, after Czechoslovakia emerged from Communist rule and the Czech Republic was formed, he was again chosen to lead a scientific organization—the Academy of the Czech Republic. But, as the Economist noted when he died in 1998, even after his lenses were being used by millions of people, he "always wore specs."