Leonardo DaVinci proposed the first contact lens idea in his Codex of the Eye, published in 1508. His invention involved putting a fishbowl over one’s head filled with water to refract light. This is arguably not his finest work though, in hindsight, he was onto something.
René Descartes picked up DaVinci’s work in 1636, proposing to place a glass tube filled with water directly on the cornea. While better than the fishbowl, and arguably effective, it did not allow people to blink.
In 1801, English scientist Thomas Young proposed gluing 1/4th-inch water-lenses to eyes with wax. Despite this, he managed to survive with an intact reputation.
John Herschel proposed molding the cornea to produce lenses to correct vision. In 1888 Fick and Girard both invented two types of glass lenses that worked but were large and uncomfortable. Terms like “excruciating eye pain” and “suffocating the eyes” are found in the literature.
Kevin Tuohy invented the modern plastic lens, filing a patent in 1948. Tuohy’s discovery was an accident. While working on a lens that covered the entire eye he cut it too small and decided to try it anyway. He found it remained in place and corrected vision.
Tuohy’s company, Solex, went on to win a few key patent cases and receive royalties for contact lenses through at least the 1950s. Eventually, their patents expired and other companies created better corneal contact lenses.